Five years after we first met in France, my dear friend Aurelie finally made good last week on her promise to visit me in America. Trotting away from the baggage claim at LAX, suitcases in tow, I babbled on about the great places I would take her during her two-month sojourn: Las Vegas, L.A., Catalina, Joshua Tree, Baja.
“Oh!” she breathed, cutting me short. “I met a man on the plane. He said absolutely, no matter what, don’t go to Tijuana.”
I gritted my teeth, calculating my rebuttal. It wasn’t the first time I’d deflected a panicked response to our southern neighbor. This time, the affront came from a stranger, tarnishing my image as a seasoned tour guide before Aurelie had even taken her first breath of Smell-A smog.
“Listen, Tijuana is full of normal people, just like you and me,” I countered, with a roll of my blue eyes and a toss of blond hair. “Americans watch too much TV.”
To be fair, I should mention that I don’t have a TV, and perhaps I ought to watch more often. It is certainly undeniable that a raging drug war, rampant corruption, and general lawlessness exist across the border. But unlike most of the people who whimper about us white folk becoming instant targets for drive-bys and a host of other atrocities, I’ve actually been to TJ.
Every time Aurelie outlined our prospective itineraries to an inquiring acquaintance, I was chagrined to hear them pounce on Tijuana. One recent evening at a bar in the Gaslamp, we were chatting with some new friends. As soon as the forbidden letters tumbled from Aurelie’s lips, the concerned fellow leaned over and grabbed me mid-sentence.
“Don’t go to TJ!” he pleaded, shaking his head excitedly. “It’s so dangerous — they assume you have money!”
I did what I thought was a good job of masking my contempt. “Oh, okay. Have you ever been there?”
“Well, no, but…” But it didn’t matter. Tijuana was a condemned land.
Later, I pulled Aurelie aside. “If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s not a big deal,” I told her. “There are plenty of other things to do. We don’t have to go.”
But my girl is always up for an adventure. “Do you think it’s okay?” she asked. I nodded, and she said, “Then it’s fine. We will go.”
Typically, I park and walk across the border into downtown Tijuana to spend a day perusing three square blocks of trinkets, tacos, and tequila — mainly because I don’t know where else to go or what else to do. So when a Peruvian friend from work offered to act as our guide, I took him up on it. I was ready to get off the beaten tourist path.
Chito picked us up at 4:30 Saturday afternoon, and we breezed down I–5, unfettered all the way to the border. Aurelie dutifully took out her camera to photograph the big block letters across the concrete overhead: M E X I C O.
Our first stop was a bar called the Sótano Suizo (Suisse basement). It was not at all subterranean, but resembled something similar, tucked behind a small maze of shuttered doors and cold, wet cement structures. Aurelie and I were clearly the lightest skinned of the patrons, but the soccer game playing on screens throughout attracted more attention than either of us. We sat at a corner table near the service bar and took in the images of the Alps on the walls, and neon bathroom signs that read “Frauen” and “Erren.”
A waiter promptly arrived with menus, a round of two-for-one drinks, and a clean ashtray.
“Ooh, we can smoke inside!” cooed my Francophonic friend.
“Shit,” I pouted. “I forgot my Nicorette.” A few Dos Equis and a plate of sautéed shrimp doused with olive oil and jalapeños later, I puffed my first personally imported Gauloise cigarette of the evening. Chito kept the beer coming and paid the tab when we ladies went to the Frauentoilette.
“Oh, Chito, thank you,” we chimed. “Can I leave the tip?” I asked. The service had been impeccable, even if I’d be overpaying for the plato picante.
“No, no,” he insisted. “I don’t think a man should let a woman pay.” Well, when in Rome.
We still had some time to kill before the doors opened at our main destination, a night club called The Rock, so we stopped by Dandy del Sur bar on Sixth. We stepped over a row of sandbags (improvised flood control from the previous week’s downpours) into a long, low-ceilinged room lit with red lamps. The tables were impossibly short — barely knee-high and the size of cocktail trays — but they lent themselves to an intimate ambiance. We settled at one toward the rear, and a waitress shuffled up as I ran my hands over the cigarette burns in the tablecloth.
“Please don’t criticize,” she joked. “I made it myself.”
Chito and I ordered Dos Equis, but Aurelie wanted to know if she could have coffee. The waitress, a diminutive, shapeless woman dressed in denim from head to toe, contemplated the foreigner with a cocked eyebrow. She appeared bemused. We waited as she weighed her options.
Finally, she issued a verdict: “It’s no problem. I was going to make some for myself.”
Moments later, a Styrofoam cup of hot water and jar of instant Nescafe appeared.
Chito looked perplexed. “You don’t like to drink?” he asked Aurelie.
“No, not so much,” she said.
“What do you like to do?”
Aurelie shrugged. “I don’t know. I like to smoke.” She pressed her thumb and forefinger together and held them up in front of pursed lips.
Shortly after, Chito excused himself to go to the bathroom. As we sang along to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” I thought about how perfectly ordinary the bar, and all the people in it, were. When Chito slid back into his seat, he dropped a cigarette-sized bundle of aluminum foil into my lap. I peeled back a corner to reveal a nugget of marijuana.