Tijuana – June 1998

A trip to Tijuana – Saturday 26th June 1998

an early start to the saturday… i spent a long while on the phone first thing in the morning. then had a leisurely bowl of cereal. i made my way to the san diego technical bookstore and browsed for a couple of hours.

returned home for lunch, quickly scraped together an un-interesting meal and downed it with some instant coffee. i had been thinking of taking the trolley down to tijuana for a couple of weeks. today, the time had come for that to happen. i called up raji, a girl who works with me, to see if she wanted to go with me. she has lived in mexico for a few months, so i thought she might be interested. but she was waiting for a phone call from her husband, so it was that i went on my own.

i left home in the afternoon at about 3:30-ish and went down to the bus stop across the road from my apartment. i had about 10 minutes before the bus was due, so i settled on the wooden seat to watch the cars go by. when it was nearly time for the bus, a chap came and sat on the bus stop seat. after a couple of minutes, we smiled and made some small talk about the bus. it was a good ten minutes late. i got off at old town transit center to change into the trolley that goes all the way down to tijuana, mexico. there was a trolley about to leave, so i jumped into it with a cursory enquiry about its destination. it turned out that it was going somewhere else. these trolley stations are like metro stations, so they’re not too far apart. i saw my bus stop friend on the same wrong trolley, and what’s more, he had also made a mistake – he too was headed for tijuana. so we got off and walked back to america plaza, where we could get the right trolley. a trolley by the way, is a local train, like the metro trains, with some four compartments. we exchanged names and some more ‘where are you going, where are you from’ kind of conversation. his name is tony. he is of mexican origin, though he was born in los angeles and is an american citizen. he was going to mexicali, a town about three hours by bus from tijuana, to visit his mother and some cousins after almost a year. he was not carrying even a small bag, just swinging his arms, as we say in tamil! i couldn’t help sounding surprised that he lives so close, yet hasn’t gone to meet his family in all that time.

everytime i talk so easily to strangers, i feel kind of amazed – by now, it should have stopped amazing me, but it still does. he told me he is a construction worker, and as the train passed through the san diego port area, he showed me the ‘bad’ parts of the city- just beyond down-town, the run-down back streets, where drug roolze, and street gangs are on the prowl. he pointed out the pavement dwellers, sleeping by the civic theatre. the train passed along the places he used to work on the harbour. he said his three brothers work in the same construction company as him, they are foremen. he is currently out of work until the next project comes up. the company puts them on dole when there’s no work… he has a kid. he seemed about early thirties-ish.

he warned me about tijuana, and said it was not a good idea to hang around after dark. i wasn’t planning to anyway. i had about three hours sunlight, and i was definitely going to get back “before the sun went down” as amma would say 🙂

i told him about india, and how mexico was supposed to be somewhat like india – atleast as far as appearance of towns go. he has only seen india in the movies – and his impression was, it was a vast desert, where people (terrorists, presumably!) go about carrying ak47’s! he was surprised to hear that there’s greenery in india. even more surprised when i told him normal street gangs do not carry guns and shoot down people. having said that, i thought about bombay, but it was too complicated to explain, so i let it go. he wanted to know how hot the weather would get in india. not being quick at arithmetic, i couldn’t tell him in farenheit. but he understood centigrade too, and was duly impressed with the pilani extreme temperatures that i told him about. he cribbed some five times about how hot it was going to be in mexicali, and how he prefers the weather in san diego. all this, when he’s going there this evening, and is to come back tomorrow!

he had absolutely no idea where india was. i told him it is 10000 miles away (right?!). he said “it must be one long drive..” when i told him you can’t drive to india unless they construct some really long bridges across the seas, he said in wonderment, “so you came by plane!”. he has never been in an airplane in his life. in fact, he has never been outside california, except for two weeks in texas. he said his company was talking about flying them to san francisco for some work, and he wasn’t getting on a plane, no way! he’d feel wierd in one of them things. he likes it here in california, and he doesn’t want to move from here. he was asking me if india had a “soccer” team playing in the world cup. then he remembered that iran had a team playing… same thing, isn’t it? i told him iran was some five hours flying time from india. he apologized for his poor geography, said they tried to teach him all that, but he never paid attention. i dont know how all this sounds when written down, but i did not talk down to him, and he was not awed by me either. we just had an easy conversation, and it was most pleasant.

we reached san ysidro (the spanish spelling is san isidro), the last stop. from there, we walked across the bridge into mexico. i knew exactly what to expect, from all the reports i have had from others who’ve been there. and it was just like that – the drastic difference does impress itself upon you when you reach the other side. as we travelled on the train past san diego down town, the surroundings began looking less and less wealthy, at every stop, more and more hispanic people got in. in san ysidro, as we crossed the over bridge, we saw the long lines of cars waiting to enter usa. it is a ten lane road, (five in each direction), and the “going” to mexico side is fairly empty. the “coming” into usa lanes are backed up for atleast a mile. they have immigration booths on each lane, and that’s what causes the bottleneck. there is a road sign there which says “U Turn to USA” – and just beyond that, on the bridge, “MEXICO” is written: ME in red, XI in white and CO in green. the over bridge is bustling with people, most of them speaking in a tongue strange to me. we got to the other side and had to walk through one of those iron rotating gates to get into mexico. no immigration on this side. the tourist information booth looked like a maharashtra state transport ticket booth, standing forlorn and closed. the first smell that hit me was faintly unpleasant, and to avoid morbidity, i shall not describe its nature in detail.

this is the (literally) touch-and-go touristy market, a tick-in-the-box against mexico for many. you can pick up cheap keep-sakes from off the pavement shops. there is a country fair kind of thing set up there, with gay attempts at amusement-park-like structures. three huge brightly coloured rings made of iron pipes, moving within one another, but on different axes. then a swing-like thing, which tony tells me is a bungie jumping model- there was a girl strapped onto the contraption, just getting unstrapped. so i didnt see how it worked. he told me he’s bungie jumped at some other place, and it’s good fun. he says sometimes you touch the water below, but it didn’t seem to scare him. funny that – he wouldn’t fly in an airplane, but this is okay!

there was a sunny square around which there were little restaurants and cafes like chowpati: plastic and bamboo tables and chairs under white and red lawn umbrellas, advertising tecate (a mexican beer), with no real boundaries between adjacent cafes. tony decided to give me company wandering around for a while. on an impulse, i asked him if he would like to have a drink in one of the cafes. so we went and asked for a couple of beers. due to the universal prevalance of murphy’s law (also known as sod’s law), it was dry day in mexico today – their presidential election was being held today. he told me how people stock up the previous day, and i told him how it’s the same in india too. tony was sure his cousins would be stocked up on beer.

from above the cafe building, there came the sound of a young girl’s singing. it was a lovely strong voice, singing in spanish of course, and very pleasant. we had two non-alcoholic martinis, in those wide-rimmed glasses with salt all along the rim and a lemon slice stuck on edge. the cafe guys decided they needed more tourist attention, so they played some rock-n’-roll, competing with the girl’s singing. after one number, they gave up and the girl reigned supreme. tony insisted on paying for the drinks, even though i reminded him that it was my idea. anyway, it is one of those man-things i suppose, so he payed. there were many beggar children, in dirty rags, who’d wander up to all the occupied tables and beg half-heartedly. they went away at the slightest shake of the head. he says, “it’s sad, but that’s the way life is”. some other children came up trying to sell boxes of chewing gum. these were more persistent- they came up three or four times to sell the same chewing gum. tony said he used to be one of the children on the street, just like these ones, when he was a kid. then a boot-polish fellow walked up and wanted to shine his boots. tony told me he had done that when he was young, to help out his mother. and he’d get two dollars in a day.. it was not much, it was just a kid’s earnings- it would buy two gallons of milk. he said everything very matter-of-factly, not embarrassed or expecting sympathy or any specific reaction.

there are 9000 mexican pesos to a dollar. it’s like the lira- no decimal places. after the martini, we decided to wander around a bit (“let’s check it out”). but there wasn’t much to see. a couple of streets full of those two-bit shops, and then the freeways beyond that. just near the US border, there are lines of yellow taxis, trying to woo all tourists into taking a ride. i was glad i was with a local, so all these overtures passed pleasantly, with tony talking to them in spanish. anyway, he wanted to take a taxi to el centro bus station, so he was inquiring the rates. i bought a few picture postcards, took a few photographs- one of  a totem pole- i find those things irresistible. another of a quaint thatched cafe with a huge scorpion made of wood perched on top of the thatched roof. we walked along the market streets, talking about california and india and mexico, corruption among the police, and such like. it was nearly 7pm by the time we’d checked out all the streets which we could walk to, so i saw tony off in a taxi to his bus station, and walked back towards the border.

there was a brief immigration check on the US side- luckily i carry my passport around still. the pedestrian queues are nowhere near as long as the car queues. i do like these trips on my own, and they are especially nice when i make friends unexpectedly. on the train back to san diego, a mexican family sat next to me. an eight month old baby, her 6-7 year old brother, their mom and another girl about my age.  i couldn’t help noticing that the baby’s tiny finger nails had black cresents of dirt. the baby, melissa, entertained us till they got off. she was adorable in her red-blue-white mickey-mice sweat shirt, and making her nonsense baby noises, pulling my bag straps and smiling shyly. that was till her brother refused to give her his movie-star cards to chew upon. then she demonstrated all the power in her lungs. finally, her mom decided she was hungry and put a bottle of milk in her mouth. that shut her up.

i got off at old town transit center to take the 44 back home. when i was waiting for the bus, i met two more interesting chaps- one dark skinned and the other fair. the bus came in, but the driver would not let us get in before scheduled time. so we were standing around there, and it was getting chilly. it was about 8pm. i wore my jacket since i anyway had it. the other two guys were in t-shirts. one of them said to the driver, “hey, i’m feeling cold out here, won’t you let us in”, but the driver was in no mood to humour anybody- he said “walk home if you want”. that’s when we all looked at each other and smiled. one of them said something about the driver’s lack of humour, and i said “he must’ve had a long day”. the fair fellow said something like “he’ll rue the day he became a bus driver”. then, “whenever i say ‘rue’, i think of soup”. he asked me if i made rue soup. that’s how the conversation started. they asked me what i cook, if not rue soup. it turns out they both know a lot of indians, through their university education. so they are quite familiar with indian cuisine. the dark fellow was an american-indian (red-indian origin) from south carolina. he had huge, black, expressive eyes, and very pretty lashes. he would raise his eyebrows while talking, making his eyes look round. the fair fellow was from kansas, and was proud to tell me his origin – partly english, french, german and american-indian. he said he takes great interest in family history and background. we had a discussion on common indian surnames. when i told them mine, that started a discussion on long surnames. by this time, the driver let us all into the bus. an old couple were interested on-lookers to this conversation. the old man chipped in with some norwegian surname and so it went. the dark fellow (i never found out his name) told me the name of his original tribe – peiku or something like that. he says they’ve come a long way in life- now they own some big casinos in south carolina, and are getting better standards of living.

the two guys were in san diego for some real estate assessment training for a week. the dark fellow was keen on going back home to his two children and a dog. the fair one (he told me his name- todd becker) joked about going home to some green mold in his refridgerator. he was planning to go to india, and his indian friend’s mother was going to take him around sightseeing, and find him a wife too! his looks and mannerisms reminded me of roger, one of the chaps i reported to when i was in a project in reading (uk). if roger is a full grown elephant, this one is a young adult, size-wise. a wobbly tummy, a round, ruddy face with a ginger beard, and spectacles. also, he talked just like roger about his bachelor status- making no bones about the fact that he’s looking for a wife, but in an inoffensive sort of way. they got off the bus before me. the rest of the ride home was uneventful.

it is now almost 12:45… it’s been a long day. i managed to cook and eat a decent daal-sabji-chawal dinner as i wrote this.

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