Friday, March 02, 2007

Crossing the border: San Diego to Tijuana on foot

Wednesday morning. I wake early. There is no alarm clock in my room, no wake-up call (it’s a hostel, after all), but I have fallen asleep willing myself to wake up at 7.30am. As a precaution, I left the curtains half-open, hoping the sunlight would wake me. It does – at 6.30am. I lie half awake and half gloriously asleep until 7am, when the fact that I’m freezing cold gets me out of bed.

I’m planning on a leisurely pancake breakfast, with a coffee (milk this time – I forgot I needed to buy it myself yesterday) and my 'LA Times'. After my shower, I wander back into my room. Outside, the sun casts a pale golden glow over the skyline – palm trees, a church spire, rooves, a blossoming fruit tree. I trot happily downstairs for breakfast, hoping to find a staff member to offer advice about getting to Tijuana.

A couple of travellers are up already, chatting over hot drinks in the kitchen with the staff member who cleans and prepares the pancake mix in the mornings. A middle-aged bottle blonde with a cheery, down-to-earth manner, she is pulling the iron griddles from the cupboard and talking about how she hates holidays. She describes the Thanksgiving she and her sister spent in an LA hostel.
‘We called my family in Seattle and said: “hey, we’re eating hotdogs on Venice Beach”,’ she laughs.
I pour myself a percolater coffee and sit with my paper spread across one of the tables. I read stories about Iraq, a political scandal, the LA mayor’s new strategy on gangs, and a pay rise for California teachers. As two Americans from northern climes chat about the amazing weather here, I ask the staff member about Tijuana. She tells me the bus to catch downtown, where I can get the Blue Line trolley to San Ysidro, USA then the bus to Tijuana, Mexico.

I decide to skip the pancakes. My mind is buzzing with all I have to do. I go upstairs to my room and turn on my computer. I get an error message about Windows not starting. I try again, not too worried. Same message. Feeling panic slowly rise from my stomach into my throat, I play with my settings a little. Nothing. I swear aloud, tears now gathering. This is all I need. My ticket and airline information is in that computer.

I grab my bag and storm out to the balcony, where a bare-chested, sixtysomething is sunbaking on one of the couches, absorbed in his book.

Downstairs in the computer room, I check my email, sure that I’ll find an email from The Husband with my e-ticket (which I requested last night) or even my booking number. Nothing. Panic takes over. Even The Husband’s mobile phone number is on my computer. Suddenly, I don’t know how I’ll get there. Or if I’ll make my flight. I type out a hysterical email to The Husband, explaining my predicament and begging him to phone me at the hostel. I don’t know if he’ll get the email in time. I burst into tears and sit sniffling for a few moments before returning to my room to dig out my computer – to try again.

I bring it downstairs. No logic to that thought whatsoever, but I’m desperate. I also have the faint hope that a computer expert will be sitting at the table and offer: ‘Hey, I KNOW what that is. You just do this – and look – fine!’

Of course, there is no expert, and the computer doesn’t work.

I give up and lock it away. My head start on the morning is fast disappearing, if not gone. I empty my immaculately packed sportsbag and find the number for the last place The Husband was staying. Maybe they’ll know how to reach him.

At the payphone outside the hostel’s front door, my coins click uselessly into the change slot and a recorded message plays through the receiver, suggesting I speak to the operator. I assume it’s another basic American thing I’m doing wrong – but no, the phone is actually broken.

Now, I give in to panic and drama. I throw myself onto my lower bunk bed and sob. Through the still half-open curtains, the white-haired man reads on. I gather myself: the worst thing that can happen is that I stay here longer and have to buy a new plane ticket.

Downstairs, I check my email. There is one from The Husband, telling me the name of the airline and assuring me all I need is my passport. As I’m reading it, a voice calls: ‘is there a Joanne here?’
I desperately wipe a fresh flow of tears from my eyes and fling open the door.
‘It’s me.’
The girl frowns a little as she hands me the phone.
‘You can’t be long. This is my only line.’

Door shut behind me, I retreat into the computer room, into a corner beyond the window.
‘[The Husband!]'
At the sound of his voice in reply, I start to really cry: gasping, noisy sobs that stick in my throat. He reassures me calmly and deliberately. Eventually, I calm down again, close my email, and return the phone to the office, explaining what has happened. The girl’s face softens as I speak. Sympathy replaces annoyance.
‘Oh, that’s terrible. And no, that’s fine.’

Back in my room, I repack my bags, resisting the urge to dash my laptop on the stairs and leave the fragments behind. I’m in no state to board a bus right away, and besides, there’s no time for mistakes. I AM in the state to make mistakes. The hostel calls me a cab.

My driver is an asshole. Again. I tell him I want the Blue Trolley Line in Old Town and he snaps ‘I don’t know the Blue Trolley’.
‘Do you know how to get to Old Town?’
‘Do you know how to get to the trolley line there?’
‘Of course I know the trolley line. I don’t know the BLUE LINE Trolley because I’ve never caught a trolley in my life.’
Good for you, I think. At least the cab is exactly $10, the estimated fare according to the hostel.

The trolley line is at the fringes of Old Town. I am disappointed. I’d hoped to snap a few quick photos, but there is nothing much to photograph. Still, even the Spanish-style tourist office and the teetering row of palm trees along the road are quite interesting.

A middle-aged American with a badge identifying him as an information officer approaches as I fumble with the ticket machine. He tells me where to go, when my trolley will come, what direction it will go, and he even works the machine for me, chatting about Melbourne, Sydney and the Gold Coast all the while.

I sit on the bench, backpack on my back, satchel at my front, sports bag at my feet. I feel that it will all be okay from here on. I will get off at San Ysidro, wander around, take photos, see the fence that separates Mexico and the US, and buy plug adapters for The Husband. Then I will catch the bus over the border to Tijuana. I estimate I’ll have an hour, maybe a little less, to play with.

The trolley arrives and a young Mexican confirms that it’s going to San Ysidro as he climbs on. I gratefully plonk myself in the first available seat, and turn to see a bedraggled old man staring at me. Opposite, a tracksuited teenager does the same. I move.

Now, I’m seated opposite a surly-looking, pimpled college kid, hunched into a grey hoodie. His jeans-clad knees are splayed as far as they’ll go in either direction. He glances at me disinterestedly, then returns his gaze to the window. He doesn’t readjust his knees, which are taking up all the available room. My legs sit in the aisle as a result, resting on my sportsbag.

Behind me, on either side of the trolley, sit two white-haired men, both with wire-framed glasses, white trousers, straw hats and white sneakers. They talk in booming voices about the sights of San Diego.
‘What’s that?’ asks the one directly behind me, pointing at the harbour as we pass.
‘That’s the Pacific Ocean’ says the other, in disbelieving tones.
‘Oh. Well, we have water like that in Oregon, too, but it’s not on the ocean.’
‘Oh, right.’

A couple with backpacks and cameras ask the man not from Oregon about how to get to Balboa Park. He vaguely knows, and tells them which bus to take. The couple wonder aloud how to find it.
‘It’s on Broadway’ puts in the Mexican teenager sitting on the other side of them. ‘I’m getting off at the stop you need. I’ll take you there.’
‘Thanks so much’ smiles the woman. ‘We’re so grateful.’

Downtown. The trio disembark. The college kid talks on his mobile. He says ‘dude’ a lot and talks about skipping classes and exams and drinking. Now, we’re in the industrial part of town.
‘What up?’ he starts another call. Oregon talks about Tijuana behind me. He says he’s going to a dentist there who’s much cheaper than at home.

The housing starts to get shabbier, graffiti gradually takes over the fences along the tracks. The signs at the stations are suddenly bilingual. We pass a temporary home by the tracks. A one-man tent, what looks like a mattress and an American flag. Parts of the fences here are peeling away.

The next station swarms with uniformed police. They stand around talking earnestly, looking alert.
‘What are all the cops doing here?’ asks Oregon. I don’t hear the reply, though I try to.

We pass a high school painted in bright colours, Mexican style. Hills packed with residences – and the occasional palm – rise up above the trackside fibro housing. Freight carriages queue by my side of the trolley. The hillsides become more sparse. A sign with a real estate company logo declares: ‘acres developing’. On the other side of the tracks: a 99 cent department store, vast motels, and a Burger King. Mounted below the larger Burger King sign, a smaller one reads ‘BREKAFAST’.

We are in San Ysidro. The trolley stops. There is no shopping strip, apart from a tacqueria-style café, a worn tourist information office and a money-changer’s. This is it. The end of the US.

An enormous cement bridge, multi-storied and lined with thick iron bars, rises before me. I expected the trolley to keep going to Tijuana, but it doesn’t. A uniformed border policeman stands guard over the entrance to the bridge. I ask him where I get my tourist card for Mexico. (You need one if you’re going for more than 72 hours.)
‘You need to walk over the bridge to Mexico and come back for it.’

Shouldering my sports bag, nearly twenty kilograms heavy, I begin to climb the bridge, which is busy with pedestrian traffic. Some look like tourists and US daytrippers, some don’t. I reach the top, shoulder burning, and look down on San Ysidro. The border police, the gaudy shops and cheap motels, the trolley line. The hills in the distance. I want to take a photo, but it’s illegal. I’d probably be too intimidated, anyway.

I am more tense than I have ever been in my life. The police presence – almost one at every bend in the bridge, the myth of Tijuana as den of vice (reinforced by laminated wanted posters along the bridge), the bars, the security cameras. It’s all designed to be threatening, and it is.

I pause over the highway. Columns of cars queue to be checked through the border. This, at least, is how it looks on the screen.

It’s another ten minutes or so of torture before I reach the border point. A plaque informs me that I have reached the Mexico/US border. Revolving studded steel gates are before me – two sets of them. A Tijuana tourist information centre, red-brick, modern and inviting, sits amongst rows of grey cement buildings.

Every step into the building is agony for my shoulders and back. My new shoes rub; I feel a blister forming. Panic and adrenaline flood my system again. The uniformed woman behind the gleaming, brochure-lined counter greets me in Spanish.
‘Hi’ I lamely reply, my racing mind unable to find the Spanish even for this. ‘Where do I get my tourist visa? I’m going to Guadalajara.’
‘Over there at the window’ she smiles. in perfect English.
‘Gracias’ I manage.

Two men loll at the counter of the window, the furthest building in the row – in the opposite direction of where I am ultimately headed.
‘I need a tourist visa’ I say, appearing at the open doorway.
‘You don’t need one.’
‘I’m going to Guadalajara.’
The men look at me with disinterest.
‘How are you getting there?’
‘You can get one at the airport.’

I can’t believe it. I’m only here, at this border crossing, because the official Tijuana website said I needed to get a tourist visa at San Ysidro. Otherwise, I could have caught a Greyhound from downtown to Tijuana airport for $12.

I walk back past the tourist office, to the second set of heavy metal gates, and push through them to Tijuana. Yellow taxis and uniformed drivers swarm to the left side of the entrance. To the right, loud signs and brightly painted shopfronts signal the start of the tourist district. A uniformed man reaches for my bag as I stand, dumbly watching the scene.
‘You want a taxi?’
‘Yes. Si.’
I let him take it, and follow. He hands my bag to another uniformed man at the kerbside, who hauls it into his cab with one deft movement. As the the first man disappears, I wonder if I was supposed to tip him. If so, how much? It’s too late anyway.
‘Welcome to Tijuana!’ says my driver as I climb into the back seat. ‘Where do you want to go?’
‘The airport, please.’
‘Ah. Where are you going?’
‘Ahhhhh, Guadlajara. Muchos buenes.’
The streets fly by my window. Bemused, I am unable to take much in. It’s a blur of now entirely Mexican faces and bodies, pastel painted houses, shabby and crumbling at the edges, street vendors. At the traffic lights, a woman goes from car to car , carrying pink candied hearts the size of dinner plates, tied with ribbons and garnished with flowers.
‘No, gracias’ the driver says politely as she pauses at our open windows. Valentine’s day. In all the stress of getting here, I completely forgot. I am no longer fixed on reuniting with my husband right now. I am fixed on reaching my safety net, my security blanket abroad, who also happens to be my husband.

We follow a sign for the airport and swing onto a wide bitumen highway, bordered on both sides by fibro walls, or long fences covered with street art. The painted scenes change as we go by. Much of it seems to commemorate suffering, though it’s hard to judge. Some of it is not hard to judge at all, of course.

A long stretch of white crosses along the fence, followed with ’11 muertas este ano’. What does this mean? Dead how? Crossing the border? Then, a black slash of graffiti, the only I notice: ‘YANKEES DIE!’ It feels like a slap or a rebuke, even though I’m not American. I can feel the hatred behind it, both from the vigor with which it slashes across the wall and its context in this slideshow of murals.

My driver chats amiably in English, sprinkled with the odd Spanish phrase.
‘You don’t speak Spanish?’ he asks, and clicks his tongue when I confirm his suspicion. ‘You visit Mexico, you should speak Spanish.’
‘I’ll learn’ I say. ‘Yes, I know.’
I do wish I’d perused that phrasebook a bit more fervently, at the least. What have I been doing for the past few days? Living for the moment, not thinking much about this day, except as an abstract idea.

The driver asks about my husband, my family. He asks if I have children. When I tell him about Felix, he asks wonderingly, ‘so where is your child?’ There is no way I’m going into the split parenting arrangement here and now, particularly as I’m not sure what his reaction would be. So, for the second time in my life, I fudge the truth to a taxi driver to avoid explaining.
‘He’s with family.’
‘Your mother?’
‘Yes.’ Now I’ve actually lied.
‘Aaaah.’ He seems satisfied and makes a gesture as if to say, ‘what would we do without our mothers?!’

We pull up at the airport amidst a phalanx of identical yellow taxis. The driver opens the back door and removes my sports bag for me, handing it over as I emerge. I look into my purse and discover, to my horror, no money. No notes, anyway.
‘Can you take a card/’ I ask, knowing he probably can’t but not knowing what else to say.
‘No.’ He looks pissed off, justifiably.
‘Can I get money inside?’
He takes my bag back from me.
‘We’ll find out.’
I scurry along behind him as he sweeps into the airport with the air of a man for whom time is money. I vaguely glimpse the border fence, which lies opposite the airport, recede over my shoulder.

The driver asks an airport staffer where the ATMs are and he points and says something in Spanish. The driver tanslates, then tells me he’ll wait outside with my bag. I’m in no position to protest.

I literally run to the ATMs and am relieved to discover that they are bilingual. I can only take out volumes of 100. I am amazed and annoyed. I take out $100. I buy a roll of sweets, the cheapest thing I see, at the closest shop I see. As I approach the entrance again, running, I realise my mistake. I am holding seventy-five pesos, not seventy-five dollars. (And no, the sweets didn’t cost $25.) I have something like seven dollars fifty – not enough to pay the driver for my fare, let alone the big tip that is both expected and deserved.

Back to the ATMs. How do pesos translate? I can’t afford to make a mistake. I withdraw the maximum amount, then change the pesos into US dollars in order to make an informed decision about the tip. I get $135. A man chatting to the money-changer raises his eyebrows.
‘Ooooooh’ he drawls, smiling at me with raised eyebrows. He makes a motion as if to grab for the money, then says something in Spanish and laughs uproariously. His friend the money changer joins him.
‘Happy Valentine’s Day’ he says as he counts the notes into my hand. ‘BA-BY!’

I ignore them both and sprint to the outside doors, where I see my driver standing at his cab, my bag at his feet. He doesn’t look furious, but he doesn’t look happy. The fare is $15. I give him $25 and thank him breathlessly.
‘Thank YOU, thank you. Have a nice stay!’ He is perfectly genial now, delighted with the result. I am relieved.

At the AVICSA ticket window: another obstacle. The staffer nods at my passport, then asks for my booking number. I don’t have it, of course. She looks me up.
‘Did you have a ticket for yesterday?’
‘It was cancelled, yes?’
‘Oh, yes. And booked for today. Guadalajara. 2pm.’
‘Hmmmm.’ She frowns at her screen. ‘You booked it?’
‘My husband did.’
It seems that I’m not in the system at all. Until …
‘You sometimes use another name?’
‘Because there is something here …’
She shows me the ticket, the only one they have for my surname. The name is utterly unrecognisable as my own.
‘That must be me, somehow.’
It is. After much more talk, and me providing The Husband’s email address, which he booked the ticket with, it is confirmed and they let me on to the next stage, which goes smoothly.

Except when I ask for my tourist visa (which my ticket attendant told me to get when checking in). The attendant shakes her head, points at my paperwork, hands it back and waves me on to Gate One.

My head is still thick with the rush of it all and the series of close calls in the past twelve hours. I sit by Gate One awhile, looking out the window at the Tijuana hills. The landscape is so similar to San Diego, but everything else is so different. I am one of very, very few Anglo tourists, but the people seems friendly and smile at me as I pass or sit nearby. An explosive sneeze escapes me and a leathery Mexican in a cowboy hat and jeans nods to me.
‘Bless you!’ he calls.
‘Gracias.’ I think I’m going to be okay.


Two hours later, my plane is due for boarding, according to the board, but nothing is happening. I keep writing at the kiosk table I have staked out as my own. At fifteen minutes to take-off, I get up and join the clusters of people gathering, but not yet queuing.
‘Excuse me, where are you going?’ asks a man with a young family. I tell him and he thanks me. He’s a local, and he’s having trouble figuring out who’s waiting for what where. His wife smailes at me and I nod back. A woman walks past trailing luggage on wheels, her toddler trundling behind, resplendent in a Disneyland hooded sweatshirt and Winnie the Pooh sneakers. He leaps onto her suitcase and clings tight, riding it through the airport.
‘WHEEEEEE!’ he squeals.
The woman with the family catches my eye and we both smile fondly after him.

1.50pm. Still no news, no sign of boarding. I show my ticket at the AVISA counter and ask about my flight. The attendant frowns at it and looks at me sceptically.
‘Where is your boarding pass?’
‘No, your boarding pass.’ She shows me an example. I don’t have one.
‘Did you check your luggage in?’
‘And you don’t have one?’
I rifle madly through my satchel, emptying each of its six zipped pockets one by one. Nothing.
‘You need one to get on the plane.’
And I’m panicking again, hot tears springing from my still-aching eyes, despite my best efforts. I am going to miss my flight for sure now.

She confers with colleagues, after checking my passport. I can’t stop crying, though the idea of humiliating myself like this is making me cry even more.
‘We’ll get you another boarding pass. Just show ID when you board.’
‘And I won’t miss my plane/’
‘No. You won’t. It’s running twenty minutes late anyway.’
I hover at the counter, just in case I misheard and they’re brining me another hardcopy ticket. I dig my sunglasses from my satchel to hide my crying, but tears still escape down my cheeks and I feel my lips trembling. I am a fool, a simpleton, I know nothing about how to get on in the world – and I’m thirty-one years old. Now this is what’s really upsetting me, that and panic about how I will go from here on. Losing my language has left me near helpless, and so panicked I can’t think straight. Did I have a boarding pass and somehow lose it?

The woman from earlier taps me on the shoulder. She and her husband shoot me kindly smiles.
‘You’re going to Guadalajara, right? They’re lining up over there now.’
‘Gracias’ I sniff, truly grateful, not just for the tip, but for the sentiment. As I dare to look around a little, I note more sympathetic faces.

The rest goes without a hitch and I board the plane gratefully. Once seated, my circulation returns to normal and I can breathe easily again, though the nausea in the pit of my stomach remains.

Surely it will get easier from here? At least The Husband will be with me from now on. Still, I realise that travelling the cheap way, the hard way, through Tijuana, was one of the stupidest ideas I can remember having. I’m not as brave as I think I am. In hindsight, I would gladly have paid the extra $100 to save myself the experience.


lucy tartan said...

But you are writing about this so vividly that even though it's totally evil I'm relishing vicariously experiencing your trip from the boring comfort of boring old Melbourne.

If it makes you feel any better I once gave a driver a $200 tip just because I had made some kind of protocol mistake that pissed him off, and this was only in un-third-world Italy, not somewhere like Tijuana.

redcap said...

Oh, you poor thing Ariel! I was feeling horribly sorry for myself when South African Airlines lost my suitcase last week and made us miss our connection from Perth to Adelaide. You definitely win in the misery stakes. It can only get better from here!

Ariel said...

Well, Lucy, I am suffering for my art ... or my blogs, anyway!

And yes, it does make me feel better.

RC, that makes me feel better too. (For me, not for you) Hope it returns to you safely. And I would feel horribly sorry for myself undet those circumstances too.