It’s impossible to camouflage a crowd of gringos at the mercadito. On Turista Libre’s website, one of the huge swap meets in Tijuana is described like this: “On Sundays the hilltop streets of Tijuana’s Colonia Francisco Villa are filled with an open-air swap meet so massive, it makes Kobey’s at the San Diego Sports Arena look like a 7-Eleven. It’s blocks and blocks of vendors selling food, clothes, produce, parakeets, puppies and — most important — mountains of the most random secondhand loot, everything from bottle openers attached to wooden papayas to pirated DVDs of Mexican classics.”
When I read this, the thing I could not get out of my head is that the majority of the stuff sold at Tijuana swap meets was bought at garage and estate sales in San Diego and Los Angeles. To me, this becomes a fascinating paradox. It’s like looking through a telescope and finding yourself looking at yourself.
It’s difficult to write about a tour through the insides of Tijuana. As a local it sort of feels like an unknown person is going through your laundry. There is a saying in México: la ropa sucia se lava en casa; it roughly translates into, “You should only do your laundry at home,” meaning no stranger should know your secrets. Turista Libre unveils Tijuana’s secrets and this somehow feels like someone just turned your family photos into exotic postcards.
In the end, are there any rules when traveling through a city? Must one always get lost or have maps or memorize a travel book? Whenever I’m traveling, I’m impractical. I like to use public transportation, eat what the locals eat, and go to local festivities. I like to do exactly what Turista Libre does in Tijuana, but there is a difference. They stay in a group, rent a public bus that is used exclusively for them during the day tour; this limits their contact with the culture, the interaction with the landscape and the people. But it’s a way to show another Tijuana, one that is different from the tourism campaigns and the constant reports in the media that sow fear on both sides of the border. Turista Libre is breaking down the common cultural perceptions of a poor, disorganized, lawless city. For that, I’m thankful and hopeful it might help some of the many shuttered businesses reopen one day. But I also hope that all these liberated tourists come back to Tijuana sometime — not on a guided tour, but just to wander around and experience their own adventures in a city they might come to love as much as I do.