I missed one I think? So here it is: Heading North?

I checked out of my hotel room in Seal Beach for the drive north to San Francisco and then into the undiscovered country. So, of course, I went south. Beyond south. Tijuana!

A friend lives in San Diego and goes to Tijuana almost every day. I had never been there, never crossed the border by car, so he wanted to give me the experience. He even booked me a room in a five star hotel for $60 so I packed a few things into an overnight bag, forgetting most of what I needed, and took the drive into the land down under.

I’ve heard stories and my posts on Facebook told me that many people heard stories as well or watched too many movies. Scary stuff is floating around in people’s minds. I think a recurring theme in my columns is “it’s not what you think.” Tijuana was the same. I got short changed here and there and my lack of Spanish didn’t help, but I did not get kidnapped, robbed, hustled or anything else that people seem to associate with going south of the border. I found a beautiful town with gracious and nice people.

Traveling anywhere in the world is the same. I’ve always said it all begins with attitude. You walk with a purpose. Even if you are completely lost and have no idea what to do or where to go, you continue to walk with a purpose.

Traveling is also about being smart. I’ve lived in Philadelphia most of my life. Even when I am there, certain changes occur. In the “green” areas, I’m normal. In the “yellow” areas, I take precautions like keeping my wallet and everything else in my front pockets and just being more aware of my surroundings. If it’s a touristy area, I also keep my phone away and don’t do things that would mark me as a target or prey or the petty criminals. The “red” areas? I stay the hell out because I know there is a chance I might not make it out. Tijuana was no different. As I traveled, the first thing I do is ask a local, usually the front desk person, where it is safe to walk and where it is not. In Tijuana, I had Chico.

Chico is a friend that I met through my orthodontic lab association. Great guy who places a premium on friendship and being nice. He wanted to show me his world. He did drone on and on and on about the red areas an a lot of stuff  already knew, but I let him–it made him feel better. He knows Tijuana. It is 20 minutes away from his lab. Through him, I got to see the tourist area of Tijuana and the day to day areas.

Like most of the world, it was slow. The once bustling and crowded tourist street was slow. Caesar’s restaurant was open, world famous as the inventor of the original Caesar Salad. The main tourist street is about a mile long? It is more for the day tourists of average means where a dollar (20 pesos) goes a long, long way. The street is lined with clubs, bars, coffee houses, casinos, and everything you really need for a few days.

Unlike most of the world, Chico was not slow. I think I took the fastest walking tour ever of Tijuana. My exercise rings on my watch were spinning like I have never made them do.

“You walk too fast,” I told him. “Slow down.”

“I walk like a lab owner,” he laughed, “always something to do yesterday.”

“I’m not a lab owner. I’m temporarily retired.”

He said some thing in Spanish or Portuguese (he’s Brazilian) that I am sure was not every nice but he did slow down and allow me to catch my breath.

Chico took me to this one hole in the wall type place for lunch. I love Mexican food. The best Mexican food I have ever gotten in the US, or even at the touristy areas of a trip I took to the Yucatan does not even come close to what I had there. There are no chips and salsa served with the meal. Instead, it’s limes, salt, fresh fruit and pickled vegetables. To drink, they serve a kind of flavored water they make every day. I need to get the name of things from Chico. Everything was fantastic, comfortable and relaxed.

I also saw the other side of Tijuana. At the end of the work day, bus taxi’s start lining the streets. The people who work downtown take these to get home. Business owners and locals start sweeping and cleaning the sidewalks and streets in front of them. Families start to gather at local restaurants to eat dinner.

A very interesting thing I saw about the place was they take Covid very seriously. Masks everywhere. Temperature checks upon entering every building–and I mean every building, including the local coffee shops and markets. Hand sanitizer everywhere and even these mats where you walk in a cleaning solution and then wipe your feet before proceeding. And they make sure you do. Nicely.

Chico took me to another popular part of Tijuana, filled with the ritzy malls and expensive restaurants. That meal was incredible as well. We went to a seafood place. The entire meal would have cost over $150 at home if not more. There, it cost $40. He told me you can rent huge, beautiful homes for $1,000 per month. An incredible apartment run about $300. I can see the attraction of living there making American money. It’s easy these days with the internet and everybody working from home.

I wrote in my Facebook page that I walked the mean streets of Tijuana and the people populating them were very nice. At night, walking down a deserted boulevard, I was fine, taking in the clean streets and peaceful air. I was in a “yellow” zone. Chico had warned me where the “red” zones were, only a few blocks away. But as long as you stay out of there, you are fine. The police presence is noticeable–they keep their lights flashing continually. Even the locals up the security presence with guards. Aye, they want to keep the tourists coming. Chico also said something about the red zones, that they stay out of the yellow for much the same reason. The fools will make their way to them.

I had another fitful night sleep in a beautiful room and then made my way back to the US with Chico the next day. He has a car pass so he dropped me off to walk through. There was a tense few moments there–aye, you try answering questions at checkpoint with a speech impediment. I finally broke into Cheech’s “Born in East LA” and they let me pass.

We got back to Chico’s lab. He wanted me to spend another night in San Diego but California was becoming like Texas and Florida: no exit in sight. I would have loved to spend more time with him and meet his family, but it was really time to move on. So I jumped on some freeway or another, drove through LA once again, and got north of Santa Barbara before I stopped for the night and overpaid for a motel room. Chico had me do some work in the lab, just to keep my hands in. LOL. And then he offered me some tips on where to stop on my way north.




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