It is the world’s busiest border crossing; I have just weaved through the gauntlet of Indian trinket vendors on the right and a phalanx of cab drivers on the left. For the hundredth time I wonder why the cab drivers on the south end of the gauntlet keep at the tourists who wave away the first dozen cab drivers. It seems to me that after the first 15 yards, it is pretty well established whether or not someone needs a taxi. Maybe the drivers are counting on wearing down the pedestrians or a change of mind. It is, I find out later, a bit of both.
I am sitting at a taco stand, my back to the noon sun. I have a bottle of Teem lemon-lime soda and three carne asada tacos. The tacos are chewy with gristle; grease stains the brown paper wrappers chewy with gristle; grease stains the brown paper wrappers t.’ ” The news commentator continued, “Ralph still lives to tell about it, but others...weren’t so lucky....Two [American] men headed south on a fishing trip in November. A month later their bodies were found near San Quintín in Baja, their skulls crushed.and puddles on my paper plate. My stomach lurches a little, but the Teem calms it down.
I have tried to speak with several drivers for an interview. I have told them what I want; they have all either nodded or stared at me with suspicion or confusion. Every one of them has cut me off, saying, “Where do you want to go?” When I explain I don’t necessarily want to go anywhere, they point me down the line to one of their competitors. I must rethink my approach.
A few days earlier on TV, I saw a piece that went like this: “You might have seen it on the Today show this morning, a disturbing report about two Mexicos in a tug-of-war. One of Mexico’s stunning beaches, a tourist mecca. The other, a Mexico caught in the grip of an unprecedented crime wave. Which Mexico should you believe in?” The story went on about an American couple, south of Tijuana, who woke up in their trailer one morning to face three men wielding machetes and knives who robbed them of money and jewelry. Another testimonial came from two other Americans, veteran tourists of Tijuana, Rosarito, and Ensenada: “We had a cab ride,” said Ralph Sanders, “and the taxi driver doubled his fee, and we said we didn’t want to pay it. And then his friend came over with a gun and said, ‘Yeah, you’re gonna pay iut a dripping cow skull in a cloud of hot vapor.
Eyes dangle from the sockets. Cooked flesh falls away from the cheeks and snout. The vendor pries open the jaws with his hands, and steam escapes like wintry breath from the animal head. Teeth fall into the In all, 18 Americans have died in Mexico in the last six months. And for the first time ever the U.S. State Department warns: ‘Crime has reached critical levels in Mexico City and serious levels throughout the rest of the country.’
“Here in Tijuana the tourism department says despite the apparent rise in crime the area is safe.” A sound bite follows, a spokesman for the Tijuana tourist department: “We had over 28 million border crossings of foreigners to Tijuana. Out of those 28 million last year, this department received only 126 complaints.”
During a recent holiday weekend, more news stories surfaced about Mexican taxi scams, the most common being, you get in a cab at the border, say you want to go to Tijuana Tillie’s on Revolución. The driver stops too pick up another fare. The other fare whips out a knife and robs you and the driver — only the driver gets his wallet back later from his brother-in-law with the knife. Meanwhile, you’re trying to call Mom and Dad collect from a pay phone.
The number you can call at the Department of State will provide you with tourist advisories that for the most part concern Mexico City, but not exclusively. Much of the message cautions against Mexican taxi robberies citing the robbery and death of an American on December 15, 1997. A State Department public announcement dated March 26, 1998, urges Americans “... to only use taxis summoned by telephone.” The warning goes on to discourage Americans from getting in taxis in front of “nightclubs, restaurants, and hotels or cruising throughout the city. In particular, Volkswagen bug taxis are to be avoided.” The taped message does not explain this last bit of advice; possibly it is that these vehicles tend to limit your karate moves in a tight situation.
“Although the December 15 incident was the first taxi robbery we know of leading to the death of a U.S. citizen,” the recording will tell you, “taxicab robberies are becoming more frequent and violent.”
In the middle of my second taco, I spot a kid with a taxi license around his neck. He is a driver, but he looks maybe 12 and about as dangerous as a bag of churros. He is wearing a knock-off Lacoste shirt and khaki pants. He is clean cut and smiling. I notice his English, when he approaches tourists, is passable — about as good as my Spanish. I think about talking to him. I’m debating this with myself (an older driver would be better, but a young guy might be less guarded) as I stare past the grilled and salted scallions to the posted menu and read, “tacos de cabeza.” I always thought head tacos were from goat’s head; I’d had a few and they weren’t bad. I don’t see any goats’ heads around. The question is settled, along with the question of finishing my lunch, when the vendor opens a steam table directly in front of me and pulls out a dripping cow skull in a cloud of hot vapor
Eye dangle from the sockets. Cooked flesh falls away from the cheeks and snout. The vendor pries open the jaws with his hands, and steam escapes like wintry breath fom the animal head. Teeth fall into the steaming water and thick, white 16-inch tongue lolls to either side as the vendor shakes flaps of meat from the bone a foot from my face. I drop my taco and stare at the sockets. I can only think of one thing: Rosie O’Donnell on a very special episode of Tales from the Crypt.