Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Tijuana: Expectations and Reality

No doubt I am so mystified by Tijuana because it is one of those places that defies expectations. I did absolutely no research before I walked across the border. I knew someone who lived there and I trusted him completely. The “expectations” came when I began talking to my Lyft drivers in San Diego, telling them I was heading across the border in a few days. Some of the responses:
“Oh I never go there anymore. It’s way too dangerous.”
“I hope you know someone there. That’s no place for a girl to go alone.”
“Just stay out of trouble. Don’t try to buy any drugs. And don’t start any fights. Everyone is carrying a gun.”

The warnings were not encouraging.

The other comments came from my friend himself. An ardent Tijuana enthusiast, he finds himself either constantly explaining or defending the city from it’s critics:
“Unfortunately, I often feel I have to explain to people why I love Tijuana. I have a good friend who I told about the city and she came to visit San Diego and popped down for a day visit only to complain that the city was so dirty and that the folks were so abjectly poor that she couldn't relax and enjoy herself. Another friend told me after I'd mentioned going to Mexico that he'd just returned from a Europe tour and that he wouldn't need to see Mexico because he's seen the original...”

Hearing this, I was worried Tijuana would be a slum of San Diego. Just a place where the poorest residents live and commute daily over the border for work.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, given the town proximity to the border, I was worried Tijuana would feel no different than San Diego. That crossing the border would be a mere formality, and that the two cities would feel utterly the same, that there would be no foreignness to the Mexican side.

Needless to say, both of these ideas were wrong. Tijuana is distinctly different from San Diego in every imaginable way. But it is not a slum. Not merely a place to sleep for the tens of thousands of workers for migrate to the US side for jobs every day. It hasn’t its own culture and vices, it’s own unique atmosphere and identity.

It is also not a vapid and soulless entertainment destination, like Las Vegas or Macau. Though it is often exploited by Americans as a place to party, drink, and find cheap sex and drugs, it is not merely a wasteland catering to these desires.

Here are a few things that surprised me about Tijuana. Some are good, other disappointing, and some without any judgement.

Not much English
Most of the Mexicans I encountered, including ones working at major restaurants and shops, did not speak English. I am not an entitled traveler and I do not expect people to accommodate my language, but having been to remote corners of the world I am surprised by the people I find who speak English when I expect them not to. Tijuana was different. I expected English to be a lingua franca and it was nowhere to be found. This surprised me because it is a border town, English is so close, and also because many Americans come over to dine and shop and usually those in the tourist industry will be bilingual to accommodate them. The only people in Tijuana who seemed to speak English were the hawkers at the souvenir shops on Revolucion, who would beckon me to their stores. Everyone else in cafes, restaurants, stores, and clubs was friendly and patient, but struggled to understand.

Fluid Queer culture
I knew there would be gay bars in Tijuana. There are gay bars all over the world even in countries where being gay is illegal. Of course Tijuana would have gay bars, but I didn’t expect so many, and with such an open and welcoming array of identities in their patrons. I went to a lot of gay bars in TJ and met a lot of amazing people who were living all kinds of lives. I cannot say any one definitive thing about the lives of queer people in Tijuana and that is what surprised me, that unlike Japan and other countries there are no prescriptive identities for queer people.

The streets and roads are so bad
This shouldn’t be surprising, given Tijuana’s other infrastructure woes, but it has not occurred to me that I would find so many pothole and scary high curbs in Tijuana as I did. Maybe I thought the roads would be well-maintained since it is the gateway to Baja Mexico, where many many people pass through. But potholes were so deep that when you see drivers swerve it is probably to avoid a pothole and not because they are intoxicated or wild.

typical sidewalk
gaps int he pavement

urban hiking on steep curbs

walking through a construction site

a makeshift bridge on a busy pedestrian street

Cars stop for pedestrians
This was truly shocking. Given the bad roads and unruly driving, I expected to get run over any minute. But drivers in Tijuana are actually quite considerate of pedestrians. I never felt unsafe crossing a street and cars always stopped for me the moment I put my foot out. So different from Thailand, Vietnam, or even Boston.

Uber English app
Almost most people did not speak English, I was pleasantly surprised to find an Uber English option on the Uber app in Tijuana. I’ve used Uber in many other countries and not seen this option appear. Basically, if you select Uber English instead of just UberX, your driver will speak English. I used this a few times and found all the drivers to be quite friendly and fluent.

The danger is hidden
Most everyone associates Tijauan with drug violence and kidnapping, but there are few traces of that in everyday life in the Zona Centro. This tiny pocket of the larger city is very well policed and protected. That doesn’t mean anyone is completely safe – the first weekend I was there one American was shot at a café, with a bullet that was intended for someone else, and three people were killed in a club on Revolucion when a gunman open fired into the crowd. I was naïve during the first trip, but afterward I learned that for people in some parts of the city, shooting are a part of daily life. Over 1,744 people were murdered in Tijuana 2017. In July of 2018, the most violent month in the city’s history, there were 251 murders. That’s 8 murders a day. Given this bloody statistic, one would think you would see more violence on the streets but in the central area, it’s business as usual.

Gourmet food culture
I knew I would be in for some amazing street food in Tijuana, but had no idea such a gastronomic revolution was taking place. In addition to the tacos and huevos rancheros I had night after night, I also dined at 5-star gourmet restaurants like Mision 19 and had great fusions takes on Mexican food at Oryx Capital and Telefonica Gastro Park. There is so much delicious food to be found on the street and in upscale restaurants.

eating sea urchin at Mision 19

Hipster culture 
There are actually a lot of hipsters in Tijauna. What can you expect? Where there are young middle class people, there are hipsters. The fashion trends were most noticeable to me at night, where they were also most difficult to photograph. The hipsters like to hang out at bars like LaMezcalera and Moustache and drink beers from Teorema Tasting Room.

hipsters love Instagram-able neon signs

Halloween is actually kind of a thing here

No, I don’t mean Day of the Dead / Dia de los Muertos, I mean American Halloween. I am surprised to find how this American tradition has taken off in other countries like Japan. With Mexico’s own important holiday happening at the same time, I wouldn’t have thought Mexican’s would be interested in Halloween. Evidence of the new tradition can be found in shop décor and bakeries.  

Halloween decor on a shop

Halloween decor in a bakery

Reminds me so much of Athens
This is a person observation that would occur to no one but me. Tijuana, as a city, gave me such a nostalgia for Athens, Greece. It might be the heat, the sun, the crumbling roads and buildings, the graffiti and trash, the food smells or the plants that grow in people gardens, but every time I walk through the Colonia Cacho of Tijuana, I feel like I'm in Athens again.

Colonia Cacho - not as hilly as Athens but still nostalgic

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