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Cool places: Hotel Camino Real, Cinepolis, Cerveceria Tijuana, Balak, La Diferencia, Paparazzi

A Tijuana better than in my memory

Cabana Boy and Barbarella at Cinepolis V.I.P.  Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting.  - Image by David Fokos
Cabana Boy and Barbarella at Cinepolis V.I.P. Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting.
La Bola. Right where Pac-Man's mouth would be was the entrance to the building.

We contemplated our options. One ecstasy pill, check. Two 20-year-old women looking to party, check. Location was the hard part — where can you party your brains out and act like an idiot without getting into trouble or running into your parents' friends? As if by way of a very close bullhorn, the answer came to each of us simultaneously, jolting us from our repose and alighting the dark interior of my car with hope — TJ!

Any kid who reaches the age of 18 in San Diego knows about the endless clubs of Tijuana offering cheap beer and margaritas to those young adults who are old enough to die for their country but not to drink in it. We followed the masses of military boys and college girls to Avenida Revolución, where bars blasting everything from techno music to the Beastie Boys were set next door to each other.

Pedro Iturrios, plant manager, Consorcio Cervecero de Baja California: "Our malt and hops come from the Czech Republic, but the water is Mexican."

Teens stumbled from one discotheque to the next. We chose one and paid a couple of dollars for an endless drink supply (a luxury afforded only to females at these clubs). Kids ordered "poppers" for their friends — one would point out a victim and pay a few bucks to an employee of the bar. The employee would track down and capture the victim and either sit the victim in a chair or simply hold the victim's head while he proceeded to pour tequila straight from the bottle into the victim's gullet. When enough had gone down, he would grab the targeted one's head and shake it like a madman.

Cinépolis V.I.P. theater: cake, crepes, sushi, nachos, pina coladas

This happened to me once. Surprised to spot the man with the bottle heading toward me, I dodged and ducked my way through the crowd until I was caught. A chair appeared beneath me in the middle of the dance floor, and the pouring began, after which was the inebriation-inducing head shake. I hate tequila, but I managed to stumble back to my strawberry margarita (a drink in which the taste of tequila is masked with citrus and sugar) without puking. I never learned who ordered the popper. Probably the older man who hit on me a few minutes after it was administered (at the time, I was 18 and he was around 35).

Diego Moreno Maldonado: "There are fabulous Chinese restaurants in town, more authentic than those of San Francisco's Chinatown."

I'm sure if something like poppers existed in the Gaslamp there would be lawsuits, but the kids in TJ never think to tell, especially when they're crossing the border against their parents' wishes. Every joint on Revolución reeked of spilled beer and tequila. Shortly before 4:00 a.m., when most clubs closed, those two fragrances were joined by the stench of vomit and urine.

Balak welcomes anywhere from 1500 to 1800 drinkers and dancers. "People come here from all over northern Mexico."

Return to the Border

Eight years had passed since my last excursion into our neighboring country. When recounting teenage antics with friends at a recent soiree, I bluntly announced, "TJ sucks. Unless you want to get wasted, laid, or annoyed, there's no reason to go down there."

"En el contrario," said my friend Eddie. "There are plenty of cool places to go — you just don't know about them."

"Right," I said. "I forgot I could get a knock-off leather purse."

"You have no idea," said Eddie. "Name the day, and I'll show you myself."

Eddie was born in Irapuato, a city located in central Mexico. He has been a resident of San Diego since the age of nine and attended high school with me at Bonita Vista High. After graduating from UCLA with a communications degree, he entered business with his father, conducting market studies for American and Canadian companies wanting to do business in Mexico, mostly for the electronics industry.

Now he works at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. To put this in simpler terms, Eddie is a gorgeous and happenin' Cabana Boy, a man-about-town who is known — and liked — by many. But I wasn't convinced he could make TJ better than it was in my memory. I called his bluff, demanded proof, and made a date.

We left early on a Saturday morning, taking the Interstate 5 from Mission Hills to the Mexican border. I insisted on driving but refused to drive into Mexico; I don't know the laws of the road, and I recalled that the cab drivers in TJ were almost as bad as those in New York City — it's better to be driven by them than to drive near them. I turned off at the exit marked "Last U.S. Exit" and followed the road to the parking lot north of the border.

"Eight dollars a day" was painted in red on a sign by the lot's entrance. I pressed a green button for my automated ticket and parked my car, then did as my father taught me and made sure nothing visible on the floor or seats might tempt a desperate vagrant to smash a window. Annoyed with my checking and rechecking, Eddie pushed onward, muttering about paranoia.

Getting into Mexico is easy. We walked the span of a city block to the first of two metal turnstiles — a rusty, clanky way to let people in but not out. We made our way down the sidewalk, on either side of which construction workers were building tall, solid walls. Perhaps these are intended to block the unattractive view of the endless line of vehicles waiting to enter the United States.

Finally, we stepped into a clearing where dozens of shiny yellow cabs waited while their drivers flocked to oncoming foot traffic and solicited fare. Children selling Chiclets, Oaxacan women displaying jewelry on the sidewalks, men hustling painted ceramic statues of Jesus and Marvin the Martian, this is the TJ I remembered — except this time, everything was lit by morning sun.

Eddie nodded at the closest of the cab drivers. "Paseo de los Héroes, por favor," Eddie said as we sat on the dark blue velvet seats in the back of the cab. Paseo de los Héroes is the main drag of TJ — that is, if one does not count the tourist-laden Avenida Revolución.

We were halfway to our destination when the cabbie cursed in Spanish and jerked the car to the left as a woman cut him off. At the next stoplight we pulled alongside the woman and discovered the cause of her erratic driving — she was brushing her teeth. Where does one get the water? Where do you spit? We jutted forward and then ahead of her as the light turned green, and I found myself relieved that I wasn't able to discover — by way of witnessing — the practical side of driving one's car while performing hygienic routines.

We were dropped in front of a building that resembled Pac-Man — a large cement sphere with stairs on either side acting as the curvy arms coming out of the videogame character's head. Right where Pac-Man's mouth would be was the entrance to the building. Uncanny. This building is the Tijuana Cultural Center, and at five stories high, it is the city's largest local history, science, and art museum. Here there is an Omnimax theater, galleries, a bookstore, and another theater that is home to Baja California's symphony orchestra. People come to la Bola (a local nickname given to the big brown ball) to attend concerts, theater, writers' lectures, and science and history conferences. The fountains outside the building were not flowing this Saturday morning, but children frolicked in the noncirculating water.

"Pretty cool," I said, after Eddie had explained what went on inside Pac-Man. "Are we going to see an exhibit?"

"Nope," he said. "We're not even going inside. We're going over there for a mimosa and something to eat." I followed his gaze down the busy street, seeing only buildings and giant statues at the center of each major intersection. I later learned that these were statues of important historical figures such as Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs, and our very own Abraham Lincoln.

Chilaquiles for Breakfast

Eddie led me down Paseo del los Héroes to the east, past Plaza Rio (a shopping mall that, as I would discover later in the day, harbored a wondrous place), to Hotel Camino Real. The hotel's several stories were yellow, purple, and hot pink.

"We're not going in there, are we?" I asked Eddie.

"This is where Gogo's sister got married," he said, as if by pointing out that our friend's family had chosen this location for such a special event he could convince me to go in. It worked — I've been to some of the swanky, classy functions hosted by Gogo's family, and knowing they chose this place was all the proof I needed to enter, whether or not I found the colors to be hideous.

The inside of the five-star hotel was an elegant, muted version of its garish outdoor appearance. We went up an escalator to the main lobby, where the concierge — a bilingual young man — greeted us. Eddie asked if the hotel's lobby bar was open. Rather than raising a brow at what could only be two Americans with a bad case of alcoholism, the concierge informed us that the bar would be open later that evening, "with live music," and suggested we eat breakfast in the restaurant.

Eddie reminded me that we'd be drinking in a few hours, which helped end my lamentation for our missing mimosas. We headed to the hotel's restaurant, Azulejos.

We were led to a table against a lemon yellow wall. The sun made its way into the room through rectangular skylights, reflecting off the walls to give everything a bright glow. Wedges of watermelons — a three-dimensional frieze — adorned the vibrant purple wall at the back of the room in a wavy horizontal line two wedges thick. Above my head, more food decorations were attached onto square boards that were split into four sections — each section contained a basketball-sized sculpture of a fruit (pineapples, strawberries, mangos, and more).

A besuited waiter appeared with menus written in English and Spanish and informed us of the breakfast buffet bar (all you can eat for five dollars). Eddie ordered mole enchiladas à la carte, and I decided to try chilaquiles for the first time. When our food arrived, I picked at Eddie's mole — a chocolatelike sauce — and he helped finish my chilaquiles, which seemed to be the breakfast version of nachos — chips, cheese, and tomatillo sauce. We lingered over our freshly squeezed juices until it was time to search for beer — around noon.

The Czech Republic of Tijuana

Outside the hotel, we hailed a taxi.

"Cervecería Tijuana, por favor," Eddie said to the man in the driver's seat. We traveled a long way (ten minutes was long compared to our previous ride) into residential streets. On the hillside were colorful shacks interspersed with large homes. Most of the buildings lining the long stretch of road we traveled appeared dry, dusty, and dilapidated.

Consorcio Cervecero de Baja California is the name of the company that makes Cerveza Tijuana, more commonly known as TJ Beer. It's located on Boulevard Fundadores (heading south on Avenida Revolución, you can turn right onto Fundadores, but we took a different route). We arrived at a structure; with its fresh coat of paint, it was the best-looking building in the neighborhood.

Out of the cab and facing the yellow-and-green edifice, I pointed at the bronze plaque affixed to the wall. The plaque was engraved with an animal figure that resembled a cross between a lion and griffin. Eddie translated the words imprinted on the crest: Consulate of the Czech Republic. To the right of the bronze crest were enormous green doors, like those allowing entrance into a barn. Eddie greeted the security guard standing in front of the doors. The guard took a moment to check with his superiors, verified that our presence was acceptable, and allowed us access to the main office. The brewery itself was to our right as we walked inside.

Though anyone can arrange a group tour (of around 30 people), Eddie had managed to orchestrate a private tour. The plant manager, Pedro Iturrios, ended a meeting with his employees to greet us. He wore fine pressed slacks with a black turtleneck sweater. His clothing and disposition, along with his mustache, salt-and-pepper hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, gave him the appearance of a man comfortably in charge. Iturrios's English was far better than my Spanish — which is to say he can actually communicate in the language — but we still both appreciated Eddie's deft interpretations.

We began in the warehouse area just past the front doors. Iturrios shared some of the brewery's history. This cervecería's owner, José Antonio González, grew up in the business — his father worked for Cervecería Modelo, the company that makes Corona — an internationally popular beer. When José Antonio González decided to open his own brewery, he traveled the world in search of what he considered to be "pure beer." He found it in the Czech Republic, in the bottle of a Pilsner Urquell, which contains only water, malt, hops, and yeast.

"We got the secrets from them," said Iturrios. "Our malt and hops come from the Czech Republic, but the water is Mexican." Originally, González recruited a Czech brewmaster, who later trained González's staff. Victor González, the brewmaster's best student (and no relation), replaced his teacher, allowing the Czech man to go home. TJ Beer is made in accordance with German purity laws, the same laws by which the Czech's Pilsner makers abide. Iturrios pointed to a poster of the Pilsner lady (the buxom blonde cartoon found on the Pilsner logo) and said, "This is the mother. González is the father, and these," he waved his arm over the cases of bottles stacked against one wall, "these are the babies."

On another wall, chairs and tables were stacked to the very high ceiling. Apparently, when patrons purchase kegs for a party, the brewery lends the furniture for a nominal price. Iturrios led us down a handful of steps into the brewery. We walked past an I Love Lucy-ish bottle-cleaning machine overflowing with soap bubbles and into a capacious room. Hulking metal canisters, resembling giant toy tops with legs, towered above us; the room had the feel of something with which I am not familiar — a very clean kitchen. Against one wall was a small desk, over which hung blue and gold portraits of the Lady of Guadalupe.

Having never been inside a brewery before, I was curious to know how "babies" were made. Iturrios explained that malt (shipped from the Czech Republic) must be ground and put into a "big pot, where it's boiled." This creates a sweet, malt liquid. To the malt liquid, yeast is added. Then I learned something I must have missed in Biology 101: the yeast eats the sugar and excretes alcohol.

So basically, beer is the excrement of yeast. I tried not to think about this for too long, preferring to sum up the whole process in one word — fermentation. TJ Beer takes several weeks longer to ferment than many other brands because it is chilled during the process of fermentation, which slows down all that busy yeast. I placed one hand against the belly of one of the imposing containers — cold to the touch.

Once everything is boiled and "yeasted," hops are added. From the desk beneath Lady Guadalupe, Iturrios grabbed two glass jars — one filled with malt grains, the other with hops. He unscrewed the lid and invited us to smell the contents of each jar. Those little hops buds smelled like beer. Iturrios said hops add bitterness and floral aroma; they also act as a preservative. I've never been a big fan of beer. Even when I partied in TJ as a teenager, I went for the margaritas, bypassing the bubbly, bitter, nasty-smelling stuff. Learning of the process made me curious about how (and where) vodka is made — now there's an alcohol I can get my mouth around (with the right mixers, of course).

But there was more to this brewery than making alcohol. I asked Iturrios about the clips I had noticed hanging from metal wires that ran around the perimeter of the room. Apparently, the owner is a dedicated supporter of the arts. Every three months he hosts a gallery opening. He chooses the work of local artists, allowing them to use the space for exhibiting, thus transforming the brewery into a gallery space. After the public show, an artist's work remains to be appreciated by employees of the brewery until the next show is hung. Currently, no work was showing; Iturrios explained this was because a show had come down and the next artist had not yet begun to hang his work.

A man in a white jumpsuit and what looked like a white shower cap on his head appeared with three frosted glass mugs. I expected him to pull a few bottles from his snazzy suit, but he handed two of the mugs to Iturrios and held the remaining mug beneath the spout (like the kind you might find on an office water cooler) located on the side of one of the towering cold vats. An opaque golden liquid poured from the spout.

"Is this safe to drink?" I asked.

"Oh yes," said Iturrios. "This is the freshest beer you will ever taste."

"But is it done?" Earlier, Iturrios had explained that the last stage in the baby-making process was to filter out the hops and malt, then kill the yeast — this beer was chilling with organisms still eating and excreting their way through the malt. Something so disgusting had to be dangerous.

"Yeast is good for you," Iturrios said, once we each had a mug full of light amber beer in hand. "We only take it out because it makes the beer cloudy."

I took a swig. Then I downed the whole thing. It was nice to drink something this cold and buzz-inducing at high noon on a hot day. I finally understood thousands of beer commercials I'd seen that touted refreshment in association with a beverage I had viewed as bitter to taste and vile on one's breath. I thanked the man in the white jumpsuit and followed Iturrios into the "pub" half of the "brewpub."

I might as well have stepped through a Star Trek-style wormhole connecting Mexico to the Czech Republic. Every piece of wood in the two-story pub (with a capacity of 300) was purchased in and shipped from the Czech Republic. González wanted to recreate a Czech brewpub in TJ — importing Czech materials and artists did the trick. Czech artists were brought in to paint larger-than-life murals on two-story walls and within small, receded panels. Torches hung everywhere, unlit and not needed at this hour, for the sun was shining through Norse-style stained glass.

I would have questioned Iturrios about the "magical door" had I not seen piñatas hanging from the ceiling. These were enough to convince me that despite the appearance of this place we remained in TJ. Glass windows in one wall gave patrons a view of the brewery. Each night musicians perform on the stage in the corner of the second floor. I was tempted to stay at Cervecería for lunch (the chef, Claudio Pérez, from Argentina, had an extensive menu, from burgers and fries to elaborate South American dishes I didn't recognize), but we had a movie to make. Through the veil of a light buzz, Eddie and I bid Iturrios rozchod and headed outside to catch a cab. We waited ten minutes before the first taxi drove by.

Cinépolis, VIP

"Plaza Rio," Eddie called out as we got in the car. It was almost 2:00 p.m. I was skeptical about visiting a movie theater in another country and grilled Eddie for information. "Is it clean? Are people allowed to smoke in there?" He assured me I was in for a lovely experience and told me to shut up for the rest of the ride.

Plaza Rio is the main Tijuana shopping mall, located on Paseo de los Héroes between the hotel at which we had breakfast and the museum at which we were dropped earlier in the day. There are two theaters at the mall — Cinépolis and Cinépolis VIP. Fourteen movies were playing at Cinépolis, but only three were advertised at Cinépolis VIP. We walked past clothing shops, jewelry stores, department stores, and beautifully landscaped common areas. Atop each bushlike tree that lined the walkway were animal shapes that had been sculpted from the hedge.

The shoppers, merchandise, and layout of stores reminded me of the Chula Vista Mall. The only thing missing were the retail chains I'm so used to seeing. Instead of a Gap, there was an Italian clothing store for men. Rather than Nordstrom, there was Sara's — empty except for the fashionable employees at the makeup counters.

Out of curiosity, I dragged Eddie in with me to find out how much this "Sara" would charge for my favorite Lancôme eyeliner. An English-speaking man rushed to fetch the product for me.

"That's two bucks more than I paid at Nordstrom," I whispered to Eddie. I left without purchasing anything, and once outdoors, Eddie explained that American brands are imports in TJ and therefore more expensive than if they were purchased in an American city (funny, I could have sworn that Lancôme products were made in France).

We continued on to the VIP movie theater, at the opposite end of the mall from the peon's theater (I was already beginning to feel "very important"). Sugary smells like maple syrup and chocolate wafted out from the entrance as we purchased tickets. There was no glass around the ticket booth. If I'd wanted to, I could have reached over the shallow standing desk and poked the ticket-selling girl in the face. Lucky for her, I suppressed the urge when I handed her a five spot — half the price of a standard ticket in San Diego. My ticket read, "El Hombre Araña Dos" — Spider Man 2. To the left of the ticket booth, we handed our tickets to a teenager — his uniform pressed, his smile inviting.

Once inside, I paused to marvel at the lobby. Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting. Theaters were marked by squares of etched glass lit from within the sliver of metal holding them in place from above.

We stopped for a moment to sample the black leather couches and chairs, which were placed so that we could sit anywhere in the room and still be able to reach one of the smooth wooden tables with industrial metal legs. The same metal uniformly encased posters of movies — faces of movie stars were illuminated from lights embedded in the sides of the metal cases. On each table were ashtrays, but to my asthmatic relief, no one was smoking. Past the lobby and to the left was a little café; before it, several wooden tables. Coffee and baked goods, like fresh cakes and cookies, were offered on signs in Spanish — a monolingual like me could peer through the glass display case or at pictures above in order to select a treat.

"Don't get anything here. There're better counters," Eddie said.

"Better than coffee and cake in a movie theater?" I asked.

"Yeah, look over there." He pointed across the way to a sushi bar. That's right, a sushi bar, with an Asian chef behind the counter, which was surrounded by Japanese decor. Impressive — but I'm not one for sushi, so I pushed Eddie on to check what the rest had to offer.

A full bar gleamed near the sushi counter. "Full" meaning "any liquor you'd like." I ordered a piña colada and kept on walking.

"Are you kidding me?" I asked when we approached the next counter after the bar. "You can order crepes here?" I was overwhelmed, and we hadn't even gotten to the "regular" snack bars, the kind I was familiar with where they sell common items like popcorn and old hot dogs. Here, popcorn was served in star-shaped containers, and other items, like hot dogs or nachos, were placed on sturdy plastic trays with indents for any conceivable item one might place in them.

The condiments were extensive — in addition to relish, ketchup, and mustard, there were three kinds of salsa, mayonnaise, and four other items of the vegetable variety that I didn't even recognize. But the one thing that struck me about all of these lobby areas was that they were so clean. Not one popcorn kernel on the carpet, not one straw wrapper by the — immaculate.

"Order me a crepe, will you? I'll go get our seats," I said to Eddie. I walked into the theater and stopped inside the entrance. Are you kidding me? I thought. The theater was huge. The screen was bigger than any I'd ever seen, and the seats seemed to go on forever. I went about halfway up (a tiring trip) and sat down in a wide, black leather chair that reclined. Eddie found me in the dark and set down the crepes on the table between us. Each pair of chairs shared a table with cup holders. He set down a ceramic plate and handed me silverware to eat with!

I thought about the last time I'd been to see a movie at Fashion Valley. Before the show started, I had gone to the counter to ask for a large cup of ice water.

"We can't do that," said the pimply-faced teenager behind the counter after I'd made my request.

"Why not? I'll buy the bottle of water, and you can give me a large cup of ice with it."

"I can give you this," she said, holding up an itsy-bitsy paper cup that would hold, at most, two sips of water.

"How about I buy a soda, and you fill the cup with ice, and instead of soda, put water in it? If you don't have any water back there, I can fill it up at the drinking fountain," I said.

"We can only give you the small cups to fill up at the fountain," this uneducated dimwit told me.

"Just fill a soda cup with ice, charge me for it, and charge me for the water, I don't care, I just want a large cup of ice water! I'll pay whatever I have to! I want to give you money!" I didn't ask her to name the capital of Djibouti, but the look she gave me would have been the perfect response to such a question.

I gave up. "Fine. You know?... Fuck it. Just sell me a bottle of water and give me whatever ice you can." I walked away with a three-dollar bottle of water, two cubes of ice sticking out of a tiny cup, and a searing hatred for all movie theater employees.

And here I was in Mexico — for less than ten dollars — sipping my piña colada from a shapely glass, reclining in a leather seat, and occasionally pausing to slice for myself, with a silver knife, a bite of caramel crepe. Eddie and I delighted in our situation. Waiting for the movie to begin, he translated for me the ads on the big screen. Then the room went dark and Spider Man 2 was before me. In English.

"Are you kidding me?" I hissed to Eddie. I couldn't believe my luck. I was already geeky past the point of control to be seeing the recently released sequel to a movie I loved. I could never have imagined watching it on such a massive screen, in such a lush theater, and with what proved to be an impressive sound system. For all of these reasons, the movie was awesome.

The only downside to my Mexican movie-watching experience was that we were directed to exit the theater through doors down by the screen. If I had known, I would have gotten there much earlier to have my share of time in the lobby. I could have hung out there all day and would have turned right around to buy a ticket to a different show, but we had another appointment to make.

Dinner with Diego

We walked back to Paseo de los Héroes and caught a cab (the rides turned out to be, on average, three or four bucks each). We arrived at the restaurant within minutes. Eddie had arranged for us to dine with Diego Moreno Maldonado, author and resident of Tijuana. La Diferencia was the restaurant of Diego's choice; we found it behind a tuxedo shop. I was grateful to be wearing flat shoes as we crossed the cobblestone driveway (those stones were set so far apart, the gaps could swallow half my foot, and I could only imagine what they'd do to heels).

Eddie and I waited for Diego in the barroom adjacent to the restaurant. The chairs were wicker with bright yellow and blue floral-patterned cushions. La Diferencia's staff was expertly dressed — the bartender's uniform had all the fixings for a tuxedo, minus the jacket. Fifteen minutes later, a middle-aged man sporting wire-rimmed spectacles, a salt-and-pepper beard (mostly salt), and tweed dinner jacket approached our table — Diego had arrived.

He had notebooks and novels in one arm, which he set on the table as he joined us. A waiter materialized seconds after Diego's hand went in the air — the server took the prominent man's order for a tamarind margarita. Diego was already animated without the assistance of alcohol.

"You see this?" Diego said, lifting his arm in a sweeping gesture toward the ceiling. I looked up at the concave bricks that formed the raised area above us.

"Each brick was individually laid. The workers used no form for this," he said. In addition to his writing, Diego is an architect and had helped design La Diferencia. Currently, he works in urban planning and land control for many of Mexico's cities.

Eddie, man of connections, thought I might want to meet Diego because he knows much about the Tijuana that Eddie was attempting to prove existed. Diego wrote Salsipuedes, a book about the history of TJ. Salsipuedes, the fictional name Tijuana is given in the book, is also the name of a bar Diego hopes to open soon. His latest novel, The Man Who Came from the South, is about a detective/tango instructor whose attempt to solve a string of murders takes him from TJ to San Diego neighborhoods La Jolla, Hillcrest, and Kensington. Diego is convinced that the main character of this book, Tony Distancia, has much marketing potential — he told us he had already registered the character's name for its assured future success in the entertainment industry.

After a few drinks (I'd been sobering up with Diet Coke while the boys sipped their margaritas), a waiter appeared with menus and asked us to follow him to our table next to the large fountain in the center of the dining room. The receded ceilings in this room were smooth, painted blue; birds chirped away in cages that were placed at the top of four columns, giving one the sensation of being outside.

Our waiter handed the Mexican men a dark menu — mine was light; it must have been apparent to the staff that I spoke not a lick of Spanish. The menu, though decadent and vast, was challenging for me. Things like crocodile, ants, and cilantro made my face scrunch. I went for simple and ordered a plate of cheese as an appetizer. I'd never been able to eat cheese without bread, but after the first bite, I popped chunks of the hard, wet stuff into my mouth. I considered this fancy Mexican cuisine, but one restaurant reviewer described La Diferencia as "traditional and exotic Pre-Columbian, Mayan, and Aztec recipes."

"There are fabulous Chinese restaurants in town," said Diego, pushing his spectacles into place on the bridge of his nose. "More authentic than those of San Francisco's Chinatown. Some of the best in Western culture."

"Why?" I took the bait. Diego explained that years ago, Chinese laborers came to Mexicali; there were thousands of Chinese to every hundred Mexicans in town. Chinese families, according to Diego, opened restaurants that have been passed down through generations. Diego insisted I try the local Chinese restaurant called Chan's Cuisine. I told him I'm much too comfortable with my Americanized version of cuisine chinoise to branch out, but if I felt daring one day, it would be on the list, just before skydiving.

Diego was unable to join us for dessert, but Eddie and I stayed on to sample the sweets, which, along with the cheese, were my favorite bits of the meal. For an entrée, I had ordered some lamb taquitos and found them to be much too gamey for my taste (I like 'em raised in squalor and pumped with hormones for that processed, American flavor).

Paparazzi

After dinner, Eddie and I were blessed with a second wind — in the form of cappuccino. We were hoping to catch a "no rules" fight at Baby Rock, the legendary club of my high school years. We made it to the building, but the doors were closed, and the bouncer told Eddie they were at capacity. Two ambulances waited eerily behind us. Apparently, dirty fighting is popular, but seeing those ambulances on hand, I imagined the typical injuries of such a fight were ghastly. I wasn't disappointed to be missing the carnage — on to plan B.

A friend had told Eddie about a new club called Balak, far from the dregs of Revolución. Eddie and I hailed a cab in front of Baby Rock and asked to be taken to Balak. We were deposited in a desolate parking lot in front of a giant structure. Peering up at it, I thought, this is the closest I'll ever come to seeing an ancient Mayan temple.

The single-hued natural stone edifice loomed above us. To the left of the entrance, which was hard to discern from surrounding stones, was a fountain with spouts as high as halfway up the mountainous wall. Trying to take it all in, I stood between two colossal Mayan statues — placed like lions or gargoyles guarding their master's castle. The only sound we heard was the distant humming of cars that passed on the freeway across the road. We saw no other people.

"Look over there," I said, pointing to the neon sign that topped a one-story building to our right; it appeared dwarfish next to a beast like Balak. The day had been warm, but the night chill was making me want to dance, music or no music.

"Let's go in," I said. "It'll probably be warmer in there, and we can ask someone what time Balak is supposed to open."

After walking under the white, blue, and red neon letters that formed the word "Paparazzi," I had expected to see signed photos of Hollywood legends framed on the wall. Instead, we had stepped inside a Greek palace — plaster busts of Roman gods adorned the walls, marble columns led to a sky-painted ceiling; the lighting, plants, and dark wood throughout...this place has got to be owned by a gay man, I thought. Eddie, in his gayness, and I, his personal fruit fly, loved it.

An adorable boy wearing black shirt and pants approached us (we were the first to arrive, I'm sure) and asked me a question in Spanish.

"Can we buy a drink?" I asked. Giving Eddie a translation break, we feigned single-language-ness. The cute thing held up his finger as if urging us to wait a moment and scurried away. When he returned, he had a beautiful young girl on his arm.

She said, "May I help you?" in perfect English.

Her name was Paulette. She was a native of Tijuana, and despite her colloquial English, she had visited the States only a couple of times. She wore her silky brown hair straight down her back, occasionally twisting it around with her hands and tossing it over the front of one shoulder. Paulette informed us that Balak wasn't supposed to open until 10:30 p.m. It was 8:45.

"Would you like something to eat? Sushi, perhaps?" she offered.

"No thanks, we're stuffed," I said.

Paulette moved naturally behind the bar. After trying unsuccessfully to explain to her how to make a lemon drop (my drink-of-the-month), I settled for a tall vodka tonic. A tasty nut mix kept us occupied. "There's always room for nuts," Eddie said. The employees of the place were gathered at one end of the bar, where they watched Pirates of the Caribbean on the television above them.

Relaxing, we rocked out to American music that was pumped through hidden speakers around the bar and lounge areas. We were there long enough to hear the Scorpions sing "The Wind of Change" three times, which is the same number of drinks I imbibed. When Def Leppard came on, I bid Paulette adios and beckoned for Eddie to follow me back to Balak.

Dancing the Night Away

While we had been busy drinking at Paparazzi, a velvet rope had been put up around the entrance to Balak and a crowd had begun to gather in front. The nightclub is open only Friday and Saturday nights. On Fridays, the club welcomes anywhere from 1500 to 1800 drinkers and dancers, many of them Mexicans from as close as Tijuana and as far away as Mexicali.

"People come here from all over northern Mexico," said general manager Ramón Flores. Flores, who was standing inside the entrance when we walked in, was wearing black boots, faded blue jeans, and a black button-down shirt. His hair was long, pulled back from his receding hairline into a queue with a generous amount of hair gel. Flores managed Baby Rock (where we had gone earlier to find fighting) for ten years and had been with Balak for a year.

We were carded at the door, and Eddie translated for me that the cover charge was $10 — for $15 it was an open bar. On Fridays, there was no open bar, and the charge was $10.

It was early yet, and the gigantic club was fairly empty. Eddie and I grabbed a drink (again I settled for a vodka tonic — of the three bars in the joint, no one had ever heard of a lemon drop) and headed upstairs to check out the VIP room. Up to 25 people can fit into this room that costs $2000 for the night.

If I was surprised to hear how cheap it was for the cover and an open bar, I was stunned into silence at the cough-able price of the VIP room. Two thousand bucks? Flores said that the price included up to 25 normal-sized bottles of liquor (they figured a bottle per person) and, yes, people can take the leftovers home. The room overlooked the dance floor downstairs; two glass doors opened to reveal both the club and a flat-screen TV that showed a live video feed of the DJ booth (the DJ this evening was an import from Russia).

The place reminded me of a hip club in San Francisco, Ruby Skye. For a VIP area we had to share with others, my group had paid $300 (not including a $20 cover charge or drinks). We received only one bottle of our choice with the booth. With the bottle of vodka we chose, we were given cranberry juice, limes, and plenty of tonic to make the vodka last. What we paid for, in essence, were the guaranteed seats, whereas everyone outside of our little area was forced to stand or dance. At Balak, I saw what I'd never seen at another dance club — seating everywhere. Placed throughout the club were about a hundred small, round tables with white tablecloths, each with two ashtrays and a couple of chairs.

The Mayan decor was carried throughout the inside — flat reproductions of the statues outside were built into the walls, but the old-world feel was replaced with new-world club technology. Scenes from what looked like a performance by Cirque du Soleil played on a giant screen against the wall behind the stage and dance floor. We sat at one of the tables, and a man in a green coat was suddenly at my side, asking if I needed anything. I declined service, noticing for the first time the dozens of similarly dressed men and women waiting with their notepads and napkins to serve hundreds of arriving guests.

Flores mentioned that Saturday nights at Balak drew a larger percentage of Americans than Friday nights, and he attributed this to the music — Saturday night there tends to be more house music. Amidst the clubbers pouring through the doors, I found a couple from Minneapolis — older, Caucasian, sharing a drink at a table by the dance floor. They came to Tijuana for vacation and had heard of Balak from a local. While I learned of this couple's traveling exploits around the world (oh really, you went to an island named after women? Wow), I watched the pictures on the screen change — now it was showing silhouettes of women dancing against brightly colored backgrounds.

At 11:30 p.m., the dance floor was "opened." Earlier, I'd asked Flores, "How does one 'open' a dance floor? Can't people go out there and dance whenever they want?"

"You'll see," he'd said. Now I watched as the dancing silhouettes disappeared, and the screen lifted to reveal painfully bright stadium lights — effectively capturing our attention as we blinked with discomfort and sought out its source.

Two men in yellow hardhats came onto the stage as all lights (including the blinding stadium bulbs) went out for a few seconds. When they came back on, fast house beats were pumping and an electronic voice steadily chanted, "Satisfaction... satisfaction."

"These guys can't dance for shit, but they're fun to look at," Eddie said loudly into my ear. The dancers were stiff, too buffed out to be light on their feet, but as soon as they started to remove their clothing, I stopped judging them.

So this was the open dance floor — the music was louder, the beats were faster, and the club was darker. It wasn't long before three go-go girls joined the eye candy onstage. Here were the dancers. These girls shook, gyrated, and spun to the music. One wore a short dress with white, knee-high boots, and the other two sported skin-tight bodysuits cut to reveal their bare midriffs. Occasionally from behind them, the stadium lights would shine as if to make it too uncomfortable for anyone to merely sit and watch.

Despite the energizing music, which Eddie had said was the best he'd heard in years, we were pooped and simultaneously signaled to each other our desire to call it a night. Once through the entrance, I was fooled into thinking we'd stepped into daylight, but Eddie pointed out the multitude of lights surrounding us, each of them aimed at the façade — a sobering effect for those leaving the building, for these were nearly as bright as the stadium lights that had been blinking on and off inside.

I asked an English-speaking doorman where we might go to catch a cab, and he insisted on walking us to the location. Edmundo, the doorman, led us around the side of Balak and through a small outdoor shopping center. I asked him what time Balak closed, and he said, "We close when the last person wants to leave." He left us on a sidewalk, refusing my tip, and a taxi scooped us up within minutes.

Coming Home

Entering the U.S. is not as simple as entering Mexico. We followed the sidewalk, moving faster than the cars that were lined up to our left. Our path led us into the building now operated by the Department of Homeland Security, and we prepped ourselves for the inevitable inquisition, of which Torquemada himself would be proud.

"Why did you visit Mexico?"

"Just for the hell of it."

"Did you buy anything?"

"Nothing that I haven't experienced or ingested already."

"Are you alone?"

"No, that guy is with me," I said, pointing to Eddie. Torquemada called Eddie over.

"You know it's dangerous to be here alone," said Torquemada.

"Yes, hence Eddie," I said, wondering when it would all be over. I imagined the next string of questions would be: When was your last period? Are you sexually active? Do you think I would look better without a mustache? And other invasive, irrelevant facts one might need to know while trying to determine whether or not I'm smuggling an alien holding biological weapons where my breasts might otherwise be. Finally, after demonstrating that I could reproduce the exact facial expression I made when the lady at the DMV took my picture six years ago, we were released into America.

The only way to get back to my car was to follow the winding path that leads to the walking bridge over the freeway.

"So, what do you think? Is there more to TJ than you thought?" Eddie asked as we winded back down on the other side of the bridge.

"I might have to see another movie to be sure," I said.

"We can arrange that," Eddie said, sparing me the dreaded I told you so.

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Cabana Boy and Barbarella at Cinepolis V.I.P.  Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting.  - Image by David Fokos
Cabana Boy and Barbarella at Cinepolis V.I.P. Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting.
La Bola. Right where Pac-Man's mouth would be was the entrance to the building.

We contemplated our options. One ecstasy pill, check. Two 20-year-old women looking to party, check. Location was the hard part — where can you party your brains out and act like an idiot without getting into trouble or running into your parents' friends? As if by way of a very close bullhorn, the answer came to each of us simultaneously, jolting us from our repose and alighting the dark interior of my car with hope — TJ!

Any kid who reaches the age of 18 in San Diego knows about the endless clubs of Tijuana offering cheap beer and margaritas to those young adults who are old enough to die for their country but not to drink in it. We followed the masses of military boys and college girls to Avenida Revolución, where bars blasting everything from techno music to the Beastie Boys were set next door to each other.

Pedro Iturrios, plant manager, Consorcio Cervecero de Baja California: "Our malt and hops come from the Czech Republic, but the water is Mexican."

Teens stumbled from one discotheque to the next. We chose one and paid a couple of dollars for an endless drink supply (a luxury afforded only to females at these clubs). Kids ordered "poppers" for their friends — one would point out a victim and pay a few bucks to an employee of the bar. The employee would track down and capture the victim and either sit the victim in a chair or simply hold the victim's head while he proceeded to pour tequila straight from the bottle into the victim's gullet. When enough had gone down, he would grab the targeted one's head and shake it like a madman.

Cinépolis V.I.P. theater: cake, crepes, sushi, nachos, pina coladas

This happened to me once. Surprised to spot the man with the bottle heading toward me, I dodged and ducked my way through the crowd until I was caught. A chair appeared beneath me in the middle of the dance floor, and the pouring began, after which was the inebriation-inducing head shake. I hate tequila, but I managed to stumble back to my strawberry margarita (a drink in which the taste of tequila is masked with citrus and sugar) without puking. I never learned who ordered the popper. Probably the older man who hit on me a few minutes after it was administered (at the time, I was 18 and he was around 35).

Diego Moreno Maldonado: "There are fabulous Chinese restaurants in town, more authentic than those of San Francisco's Chinatown."

I'm sure if something like poppers existed in the Gaslamp there would be lawsuits, but the kids in TJ never think to tell, especially when they're crossing the border against their parents' wishes. Every joint on Revolución reeked of spilled beer and tequila. Shortly before 4:00 a.m., when most clubs closed, those two fragrances were joined by the stench of vomit and urine.

Balak welcomes anywhere from 1500 to 1800 drinkers and dancers. "People come here from all over northern Mexico."

Return to the Border

Eight years had passed since my last excursion into our neighboring country. When recounting teenage antics with friends at a recent soiree, I bluntly announced, "TJ sucks. Unless you want to get wasted, laid, or annoyed, there's no reason to go down there."

"En el contrario," said my friend Eddie. "There are plenty of cool places to go — you just don't know about them."

"Right," I said. "I forgot I could get a knock-off leather purse."

"You have no idea," said Eddie. "Name the day, and I'll show you myself."

Eddie was born in Irapuato, a city located in central Mexico. He has been a resident of San Diego since the age of nine and attended high school with me at Bonita Vista High. After graduating from UCLA with a communications degree, he entered business with his father, conducting market studies for American and Canadian companies wanting to do business in Mexico, mostly for the electronics industry.

Now he works at the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. To put this in simpler terms, Eddie is a gorgeous and happenin' Cabana Boy, a man-about-town who is known — and liked — by many. But I wasn't convinced he could make TJ better than it was in my memory. I called his bluff, demanded proof, and made a date.

We left early on a Saturday morning, taking the Interstate 5 from Mission Hills to the Mexican border. I insisted on driving but refused to drive into Mexico; I don't know the laws of the road, and I recalled that the cab drivers in TJ were almost as bad as those in New York City — it's better to be driven by them than to drive near them. I turned off at the exit marked "Last U.S. Exit" and followed the road to the parking lot north of the border.

"Eight dollars a day" was painted in red on a sign by the lot's entrance. I pressed a green button for my automated ticket and parked my car, then did as my father taught me and made sure nothing visible on the floor or seats might tempt a desperate vagrant to smash a window. Annoyed with my checking and rechecking, Eddie pushed onward, muttering about paranoia.

Getting into Mexico is easy. We walked the span of a city block to the first of two metal turnstiles — a rusty, clanky way to let people in but not out. We made our way down the sidewalk, on either side of which construction workers were building tall, solid walls. Perhaps these are intended to block the unattractive view of the endless line of vehicles waiting to enter the United States.

Finally, we stepped into a clearing where dozens of shiny yellow cabs waited while their drivers flocked to oncoming foot traffic and solicited fare. Children selling Chiclets, Oaxacan women displaying jewelry on the sidewalks, men hustling painted ceramic statues of Jesus and Marvin the Martian, this is the TJ I remembered — except this time, everything was lit by morning sun.

Eddie nodded at the closest of the cab drivers. "Paseo de los Héroes, por favor," Eddie said as we sat on the dark blue velvet seats in the back of the cab. Paseo de los Héroes is the main drag of TJ — that is, if one does not count the tourist-laden Avenida Revolución.

We were halfway to our destination when the cabbie cursed in Spanish and jerked the car to the left as a woman cut him off. At the next stoplight we pulled alongside the woman and discovered the cause of her erratic driving — she was brushing her teeth. Where does one get the water? Where do you spit? We jutted forward and then ahead of her as the light turned green, and I found myself relieved that I wasn't able to discover — by way of witnessing — the practical side of driving one's car while performing hygienic routines.

We were dropped in front of a building that resembled Pac-Man — a large cement sphere with stairs on either side acting as the curvy arms coming out of the videogame character's head. Right where Pac-Man's mouth would be was the entrance to the building. Uncanny. This building is the Tijuana Cultural Center, and at five stories high, it is the city's largest local history, science, and art museum. Here there is an Omnimax theater, galleries, a bookstore, and another theater that is home to Baja California's symphony orchestra. People come to la Bola (a local nickname given to the big brown ball) to attend concerts, theater, writers' lectures, and science and history conferences. The fountains outside the building were not flowing this Saturday morning, but children frolicked in the noncirculating water.

"Pretty cool," I said, after Eddie had explained what went on inside Pac-Man. "Are we going to see an exhibit?"

"Nope," he said. "We're not even going inside. We're going over there for a mimosa and something to eat." I followed his gaze down the busy street, seeing only buildings and giant statues at the center of each major intersection. I later learned that these were statues of important historical figures such as Cuauhtémoc, the last emperor of the Aztecs, and our very own Abraham Lincoln.

Chilaquiles for Breakfast

Eddie led me down Paseo del los Héroes to the east, past Plaza Rio (a shopping mall that, as I would discover later in the day, harbored a wondrous place), to Hotel Camino Real. The hotel's several stories were yellow, purple, and hot pink.

"We're not going in there, are we?" I asked Eddie.

"This is where Gogo's sister got married," he said, as if by pointing out that our friend's family had chosen this location for such a special event he could convince me to go in. It worked — I've been to some of the swanky, classy functions hosted by Gogo's family, and knowing they chose this place was all the proof I needed to enter, whether or not I found the colors to be hideous.

The inside of the five-star hotel was an elegant, muted version of its garish outdoor appearance. We went up an escalator to the main lobby, where the concierge — a bilingual young man — greeted us. Eddie asked if the hotel's lobby bar was open. Rather than raising a brow at what could only be two Americans with a bad case of alcoholism, the concierge informed us that the bar would be open later that evening, "with live music," and suggested we eat breakfast in the restaurant.

Eddie reminded me that we'd be drinking in a few hours, which helped end my lamentation for our missing mimosas. We headed to the hotel's restaurant, Azulejos.

We were led to a table against a lemon yellow wall. The sun made its way into the room through rectangular skylights, reflecting off the walls to give everything a bright glow. Wedges of watermelons — a three-dimensional frieze — adorned the vibrant purple wall at the back of the room in a wavy horizontal line two wedges thick. Above my head, more food decorations were attached onto square boards that were split into four sections — each section contained a basketball-sized sculpture of a fruit (pineapples, strawberries, mangos, and more).

A besuited waiter appeared with menus written in English and Spanish and informed us of the breakfast buffet bar (all you can eat for five dollars). Eddie ordered mole enchiladas à la carte, and I decided to try chilaquiles for the first time. When our food arrived, I picked at Eddie's mole — a chocolatelike sauce — and he helped finish my chilaquiles, which seemed to be the breakfast version of nachos — chips, cheese, and tomatillo sauce. We lingered over our freshly squeezed juices until it was time to search for beer — around noon.

The Czech Republic of Tijuana

Outside the hotel, we hailed a taxi.

"Cervecería Tijuana, por favor," Eddie said to the man in the driver's seat. We traveled a long way (ten minutes was long compared to our previous ride) into residential streets. On the hillside were colorful shacks interspersed with large homes. Most of the buildings lining the long stretch of road we traveled appeared dry, dusty, and dilapidated.

Consorcio Cervecero de Baja California is the name of the company that makes Cerveza Tijuana, more commonly known as TJ Beer. It's located on Boulevard Fundadores (heading south on Avenida Revolución, you can turn right onto Fundadores, but we took a different route). We arrived at a structure; with its fresh coat of paint, it was the best-looking building in the neighborhood.

Out of the cab and facing the yellow-and-green edifice, I pointed at the bronze plaque affixed to the wall. The plaque was engraved with an animal figure that resembled a cross between a lion and griffin. Eddie translated the words imprinted on the crest: Consulate of the Czech Republic. To the right of the bronze crest were enormous green doors, like those allowing entrance into a barn. Eddie greeted the security guard standing in front of the doors. The guard took a moment to check with his superiors, verified that our presence was acceptable, and allowed us access to the main office. The brewery itself was to our right as we walked inside.

Though anyone can arrange a group tour (of around 30 people), Eddie had managed to orchestrate a private tour. The plant manager, Pedro Iturrios, ended a meeting with his employees to greet us. He wore fine pressed slacks with a black turtleneck sweater. His clothing and disposition, along with his mustache, salt-and-pepper hair, and wire-rimmed glasses, gave him the appearance of a man comfortably in charge. Iturrios's English was far better than my Spanish — which is to say he can actually communicate in the language — but we still both appreciated Eddie's deft interpretations.

We began in the warehouse area just past the front doors. Iturrios shared some of the brewery's history. This cervecería's owner, José Antonio González, grew up in the business — his father worked for Cervecería Modelo, the company that makes Corona — an internationally popular beer. When José Antonio González decided to open his own brewery, he traveled the world in search of what he considered to be "pure beer." He found it in the Czech Republic, in the bottle of a Pilsner Urquell, which contains only water, malt, hops, and yeast.

"We got the secrets from them," said Iturrios. "Our malt and hops come from the Czech Republic, but the water is Mexican." Originally, González recruited a Czech brewmaster, who later trained González's staff. Victor González, the brewmaster's best student (and no relation), replaced his teacher, allowing the Czech man to go home. TJ Beer is made in accordance with German purity laws, the same laws by which the Czech's Pilsner makers abide. Iturrios pointed to a poster of the Pilsner lady (the buxom blonde cartoon found on the Pilsner logo) and said, "This is the mother. González is the father, and these," he waved his arm over the cases of bottles stacked against one wall, "these are the babies."

On another wall, chairs and tables were stacked to the very high ceiling. Apparently, when patrons purchase kegs for a party, the brewery lends the furniture for a nominal price. Iturrios led us down a handful of steps into the brewery. We walked past an I Love Lucy-ish bottle-cleaning machine overflowing with soap bubbles and into a capacious room. Hulking metal canisters, resembling giant toy tops with legs, towered above us; the room had the feel of something with which I am not familiar — a very clean kitchen. Against one wall was a small desk, over which hung blue and gold portraits of the Lady of Guadalupe.

Having never been inside a brewery before, I was curious to know how "babies" were made. Iturrios explained that malt (shipped from the Czech Republic) must be ground and put into a "big pot, where it's boiled." This creates a sweet, malt liquid. To the malt liquid, yeast is added. Then I learned something I must have missed in Biology 101: the yeast eats the sugar and excretes alcohol.

So basically, beer is the excrement of yeast. I tried not to think about this for too long, preferring to sum up the whole process in one word — fermentation. TJ Beer takes several weeks longer to ferment than many other brands because it is chilled during the process of fermentation, which slows down all that busy yeast. I placed one hand against the belly of one of the imposing containers — cold to the touch.

Once everything is boiled and "yeasted," hops are added. From the desk beneath Lady Guadalupe, Iturrios grabbed two glass jars — one filled with malt grains, the other with hops. He unscrewed the lid and invited us to smell the contents of each jar. Those little hops buds smelled like beer. Iturrios said hops add bitterness and floral aroma; they also act as a preservative. I've never been a big fan of beer. Even when I partied in TJ as a teenager, I went for the margaritas, bypassing the bubbly, bitter, nasty-smelling stuff. Learning of the process made me curious about how (and where) vodka is made — now there's an alcohol I can get my mouth around (with the right mixers, of course).

But there was more to this brewery than making alcohol. I asked Iturrios about the clips I had noticed hanging from metal wires that ran around the perimeter of the room. Apparently, the owner is a dedicated supporter of the arts. Every three months he hosts a gallery opening. He chooses the work of local artists, allowing them to use the space for exhibiting, thus transforming the brewery into a gallery space. After the public show, an artist's work remains to be appreciated by employees of the brewery until the next show is hung. Currently, no work was showing; Iturrios explained this was because a show had come down and the next artist had not yet begun to hang his work.

A man in a white jumpsuit and what looked like a white shower cap on his head appeared with three frosted glass mugs. I expected him to pull a few bottles from his snazzy suit, but he handed two of the mugs to Iturrios and held the remaining mug beneath the spout (like the kind you might find on an office water cooler) located on the side of one of the towering cold vats. An opaque golden liquid poured from the spout.

"Is this safe to drink?" I asked.

"Oh yes," said Iturrios. "This is the freshest beer you will ever taste."

"But is it done?" Earlier, Iturrios had explained that the last stage in the baby-making process was to filter out the hops and malt, then kill the yeast — this beer was chilling with organisms still eating and excreting their way through the malt. Something so disgusting had to be dangerous.

"Yeast is good for you," Iturrios said, once we each had a mug full of light amber beer in hand. "We only take it out because it makes the beer cloudy."

I took a swig. Then I downed the whole thing. It was nice to drink something this cold and buzz-inducing at high noon on a hot day. I finally understood thousands of beer commercials I'd seen that touted refreshment in association with a beverage I had viewed as bitter to taste and vile on one's breath. I thanked the man in the white jumpsuit and followed Iturrios into the "pub" half of the "brewpub."

I might as well have stepped through a Star Trek-style wormhole connecting Mexico to the Czech Republic. Every piece of wood in the two-story pub (with a capacity of 300) was purchased in and shipped from the Czech Republic. González wanted to recreate a Czech brewpub in TJ — importing Czech materials and artists did the trick. Czech artists were brought in to paint larger-than-life murals on two-story walls and within small, receded panels. Torches hung everywhere, unlit and not needed at this hour, for the sun was shining through Norse-style stained glass.

I would have questioned Iturrios about the "magical door" had I not seen piñatas hanging from the ceiling. These were enough to convince me that despite the appearance of this place we remained in TJ. Glass windows in one wall gave patrons a view of the brewery. Each night musicians perform on the stage in the corner of the second floor. I was tempted to stay at Cervecería for lunch (the chef, Claudio Pérez, from Argentina, had an extensive menu, from burgers and fries to elaborate South American dishes I didn't recognize), but we had a movie to make. Through the veil of a light buzz, Eddie and I bid Iturrios rozchod and headed outside to catch a cab. We waited ten minutes before the first taxi drove by.

Cinépolis, VIP

"Plaza Rio," Eddie called out as we got in the car. It was almost 2:00 p.m. I was skeptical about visiting a movie theater in another country and grilled Eddie for information. "Is it clean? Are people allowed to smoke in there?" He assured me I was in for a lovely experience and told me to shut up for the rest of the ride.

Plaza Rio is the main Tijuana shopping mall, located on Paseo de los Héroes between the hotel at which we had breakfast and the museum at which we were dropped earlier in the day. There are two theaters at the mall — Cinépolis and Cinépolis VIP. Fourteen movies were playing at Cinépolis, but only three were advertised at Cinépolis VIP. We walked past clothing shops, jewelry stores, department stores, and beautifully landscaped common areas. Atop each bushlike tree that lined the walkway were animal shapes that had been sculpted from the hedge.

The shoppers, merchandise, and layout of stores reminded me of the Chula Vista Mall. The only thing missing were the retail chains I'm so used to seeing. Instead of a Gap, there was an Italian clothing store for men. Rather than Nordstrom, there was Sara's — empty except for the fashionable employees at the makeup counters.

Out of curiosity, I dragged Eddie in with me to find out how much this "Sara" would charge for my favorite Lancôme eyeliner. An English-speaking man rushed to fetch the product for me.

"That's two bucks more than I paid at Nordstrom," I whispered to Eddie. I left without purchasing anything, and once outdoors, Eddie explained that American brands are imports in TJ and therefore more expensive than if they were purchased in an American city (funny, I could have sworn that Lancôme products were made in France).

We continued on to the VIP movie theater, at the opposite end of the mall from the peon's theater (I was already beginning to feel "very important"). Sugary smells like maple syrup and chocolate wafted out from the entrance as we purchased tickets. There was no glass around the ticket booth. If I'd wanted to, I could have reached over the shallow standing desk and poked the ticket-selling girl in the face. Lucky for her, I suppressed the urge when I handed her a five spot — half the price of a standard ticket in San Diego. My ticket read, "El Hombre Araña Dos" — Spider Man 2. To the left of the ticket booth, we handed our tickets to a teenager — his uniform pressed, his smile inviting.

Once inside, I paused to marvel at the lobby. Large silver columns rose to meet sweeping curves and lines of the ceiling — a modern, contemporary design, backlit with soft blue lighting. Theaters were marked by squares of etched glass lit from within the sliver of metal holding them in place from above.

We stopped for a moment to sample the black leather couches and chairs, which were placed so that we could sit anywhere in the room and still be able to reach one of the smooth wooden tables with industrial metal legs. The same metal uniformly encased posters of movies — faces of movie stars were illuminated from lights embedded in the sides of the metal cases. On each table were ashtrays, but to my asthmatic relief, no one was smoking. Past the lobby and to the left was a little café; before it, several wooden tables. Coffee and baked goods, like fresh cakes and cookies, were offered on signs in Spanish — a monolingual like me could peer through the glass display case or at pictures above in order to select a treat.

"Don't get anything here. There're better counters," Eddie said.

"Better than coffee and cake in a movie theater?" I asked.

"Yeah, look over there." He pointed across the way to a sushi bar. That's right, a sushi bar, with an Asian chef behind the counter, which was surrounded by Japanese decor. Impressive — but I'm not one for sushi, so I pushed Eddie on to check what the rest had to offer.

A full bar gleamed near the sushi counter. "Full" meaning "any liquor you'd like." I ordered a piña colada and kept on walking.

"Are you kidding me?" I asked when we approached the next counter after the bar. "You can order crepes here?" I was overwhelmed, and we hadn't even gotten to the "regular" snack bars, the kind I was familiar with where they sell common items like popcorn and old hot dogs. Here, popcorn was served in star-shaped containers, and other items, like hot dogs or nachos, were placed on sturdy plastic trays with indents for any conceivable item one might place in them.

The condiments were extensive — in addition to relish, ketchup, and mustard, there were three kinds of salsa, mayonnaise, and four other items of the vegetable variety that I didn't even recognize. But the one thing that struck me about all of these lobby areas was that they were so clean. Not one popcorn kernel on the carpet, not one straw wrapper by the — immaculate.

"Order me a crepe, will you? I'll go get our seats," I said to Eddie. I walked into the theater and stopped inside the entrance. Are you kidding me? I thought. The theater was huge. The screen was bigger than any I'd ever seen, and the seats seemed to go on forever. I went about halfway up (a tiring trip) and sat down in a wide, black leather chair that reclined. Eddie found me in the dark and set down the crepes on the table between us. Each pair of chairs shared a table with cup holders. He set down a ceramic plate and handed me silverware to eat with!

I thought about the last time I'd been to see a movie at Fashion Valley. Before the show started, I had gone to the counter to ask for a large cup of ice water.

"We can't do that," said the pimply-faced teenager behind the counter after I'd made my request.

"Why not? I'll buy the bottle of water, and you can give me a large cup of ice with it."

"I can give you this," she said, holding up an itsy-bitsy paper cup that would hold, at most, two sips of water.

"How about I buy a soda, and you fill the cup with ice, and instead of soda, put water in it? If you don't have any water back there, I can fill it up at the drinking fountain," I said.

"We can only give you the small cups to fill up at the fountain," this uneducated dimwit told me.

"Just fill a soda cup with ice, charge me for it, and charge me for the water, I don't care, I just want a large cup of ice water! I'll pay whatever I have to! I want to give you money!" I didn't ask her to name the capital of Djibouti, but the look she gave me would have been the perfect response to such a question.

I gave up. "Fine. You know?... Fuck it. Just sell me a bottle of water and give me whatever ice you can." I walked away with a three-dollar bottle of water, two cubes of ice sticking out of a tiny cup, and a searing hatred for all movie theater employees.

And here I was in Mexico — for less than ten dollars — sipping my piña colada from a shapely glass, reclining in a leather seat, and occasionally pausing to slice for myself, with a silver knife, a bite of caramel crepe. Eddie and I delighted in our situation. Waiting for the movie to begin, he translated for me the ads on the big screen. Then the room went dark and Spider Man 2 was before me. In English.

"Are you kidding me?" I hissed to Eddie. I couldn't believe my luck. I was already geeky past the point of control to be seeing the recently released sequel to a movie I loved. I could never have imagined watching it on such a massive screen, in such a lush theater, and with what proved to be an impressive sound system. For all of these reasons, the movie was awesome.

The only downside to my Mexican movie-watching experience was that we were directed to exit the theater through doors down by the screen. If I had known, I would have gotten there much earlier to have my share of time in the lobby. I could have hung out there all day and would have turned right around to buy a ticket to a different show, but we had another appointment to make.

Dinner with Diego

We walked back to Paseo de los Héroes and caught a cab (the rides turned out to be, on average, three or four bucks each). We arrived at the restaurant within minutes. Eddie had arranged for us to dine with Diego Moreno Maldonado, author and resident of Tijuana. La Diferencia was the restaurant of Diego's choice; we found it behind a tuxedo shop. I was grateful to be wearing flat shoes as we crossed the cobblestone driveway (those stones were set so far apart, the gaps could swallow half my foot, and I could only imagine what they'd do to heels).

Eddie and I waited for Diego in the barroom adjacent to the restaurant. The chairs were wicker with bright yellow and blue floral-patterned cushions. La Diferencia's staff was expertly dressed — the bartender's uniform had all the fixings for a tuxedo, minus the jacket. Fifteen minutes later, a middle-aged man sporting wire-rimmed spectacles, a salt-and-pepper beard (mostly salt), and tweed dinner jacket approached our table — Diego had arrived.

He had notebooks and novels in one arm, which he set on the table as he joined us. A waiter materialized seconds after Diego's hand went in the air — the server took the prominent man's order for a tamarind margarita. Diego was already animated without the assistance of alcohol.

"You see this?" Diego said, lifting his arm in a sweeping gesture toward the ceiling. I looked up at the concave bricks that formed the raised area above us.

"Each brick was individually laid. The workers used no form for this," he said. In addition to his writing, Diego is an architect and had helped design La Diferencia. Currently, he works in urban planning and land control for many of Mexico's cities.

Eddie, man of connections, thought I might want to meet Diego because he knows much about the Tijuana that Eddie was attempting to prove existed. Diego wrote Salsipuedes, a book about the history of TJ. Salsipuedes, the fictional name Tijuana is given in the book, is also the name of a bar Diego hopes to open soon. His latest novel, The Man Who Came from the South, is about a detective/tango instructor whose attempt to solve a string of murders takes him from TJ to San Diego neighborhoods La Jolla, Hillcrest, and Kensington. Diego is convinced that the main character of this book, Tony Distancia, has much marketing potential — he told us he had already registered the character's name for its assured future success in the entertainment industry.

After a few drinks (I'd been sobering up with Diet Coke while the boys sipped their margaritas), a waiter appeared with menus and asked us to follow him to our table next to the large fountain in the center of the dining room. The receded ceilings in this room were smooth, painted blue; birds chirped away in cages that were placed at the top of four columns, giving one the sensation of being outside.

Our waiter handed the Mexican men a dark menu — mine was light; it must have been apparent to the staff that I spoke not a lick of Spanish. The menu, though decadent and vast, was challenging for me. Things like crocodile, ants, and cilantro made my face scrunch. I went for simple and ordered a plate of cheese as an appetizer. I'd never been able to eat cheese without bread, but after the first bite, I popped chunks of the hard, wet stuff into my mouth. I considered this fancy Mexican cuisine, but one restaurant reviewer described La Diferencia as "traditional and exotic Pre-Columbian, Mayan, and Aztec recipes."

"There are fabulous Chinese restaurants in town," said Diego, pushing his spectacles into place on the bridge of his nose. "More authentic than those of San Francisco's Chinatown. Some of the best in Western culture."

"Why?" I took the bait. Diego explained that years ago, Chinese laborers came to Mexicali; there were thousands of Chinese to every hundred Mexicans in town. Chinese families, according to Diego, opened restaurants that have been passed down through generations. Diego insisted I try the local Chinese restaurant called Chan's Cuisine. I told him I'm much too comfortable with my Americanized version of cuisine chinoise to branch out, but if I felt daring one day, it would be on the list, just before skydiving.

Diego was unable to join us for dessert, but Eddie and I stayed on to sample the sweets, which, along with the cheese, were my favorite bits of the meal. For an entrée, I had ordered some lamb taquitos and found them to be much too gamey for my taste (I like 'em raised in squalor and pumped with hormones for that processed, American flavor).

Paparazzi

After dinner, Eddie and I were blessed with a second wind — in the form of cappuccino. We were hoping to catch a "no rules" fight at Baby Rock, the legendary club of my high school years. We made it to the building, but the doors were closed, and the bouncer told Eddie they were at capacity. Two ambulances waited eerily behind us. Apparently, dirty fighting is popular, but seeing those ambulances on hand, I imagined the typical injuries of such a fight were ghastly. I wasn't disappointed to be missing the carnage — on to plan B.

A friend had told Eddie about a new club called Balak, far from the dregs of Revolución. Eddie and I hailed a cab in front of Baby Rock and asked to be taken to Balak. We were deposited in a desolate parking lot in front of a giant structure. Peering up at it, I thought, this is the closest I'll ever come to seeing an ancient Mayan temple.

The single-hued natural stone edifice loomed above us. To the left of the entrance, which was hard to discern from surrounding stones, was a fountain with spouts as high as halfway up the mountainous wall. Trying to take it all in, I stood between two colossal Mayan statues — placed like lions or gargoyles guarding their master's castle. The only sound we heard was the distant humming of cars that passed on the freeway across the road. We saw no other people.

"Look over there," I said, pointing to the neon sign that topped a one-story building to our right; it appeared dwarfish next to a beast like Balak. The day had been warm, but the night chill was making me want to dance, music or no music.

"Let's go in," I said. "It'll probably be warmer in there, and we can ask someone what time Balak is supposed to open."

After walking under the white, blue, and red neon letters that formed the word "Paparazzi," I had expected to see signed photos of Hollywood legends framed on the wall. Instead, we had stepped inside a Greek palace — plaster busts of Roman gods adorned the walls, marble columns led to a sky-painted ceiling; the lighting, plants, and dark wood throughout...this place has got to be owned by a gay man, I thought. Eddie, in his gayness, and I, his personal fruit fly, loved it.

An adorable boy wearing black shirt and pants approached us (we were the first to arrive, I'm sure) and asked me a question in Spanish.

"Can we buy a drink?" I asked. Giving Eddie a translation break, we feigned single-language-ness. The cute thing held up his finger as if urging us to wait a moment and scurried away. When he returned, he had a beautiful young girl on his arm.

She said, "May I help you?" in perfect English.

Her name was Paulette. She was a native of Tijuana, and despite her colloquial English, she had visited the States only a couple of times. She wore her silky brown hair straight down her back, occasionally twisting it around with her hands and tossing it over the front of one shoulder. Paulette informed us that Balak wasn't supposed to open until 10:30 p.m. It was 8:45.

"Would you like something to eat? Sushi, perhaps?" she offered.

"No thanks, we're stuffed," I said.

Paulette moved naturally behind the bar. After trying unsuccessfully to explain to her how to make a lemon drop (my drink-of-the-month), I settled for a tall vodka tonic. A tasty nut mix kept us occupied. "There's always room for nuts," Eddie said. The employees of the place were gathered at one end of the bar, where they watched Pirates of the Caribbean on the television above them.

Relaxing, we rocked out to American music that was pumped through hidden speakers around the bar and lounge areas. We were there long enough to hear the Scorpions sing "The Wind of Change" three times, which is the same number of drinks I imbibed. When Def Leppard came on, I bid Paulette adios and beckoned for Eddie to follow me back to Balak.

Dancing the Night Away

While we had been busy drinking at Paparazzi, a velvet rope had been put up around the entrance to Balak and a crowd had begun to gather in front. The nightclub is open only Friday and Saturday nights. On Fridays, the club welcomes anywhere from 1500 to 1800 drinkers and dancers, many of them Mexicans from as close as Tijuana and as far away as Mexicali.

"People come here from all over northern Mexico," said general manager Ramón Flores. Flores, who was standing inside the entrance when we walked in, was wearing black boots, faded blue jeans, and a black button-down shirt. His hair was long, pulled back from his receding hairline into a queue with a generous amount of hair gel. Flores managed Baby Rock (where we had gone earlier to find fighting) for ten years and had been with Balak for a year.

We were carded at the door, and Eddie translated for me that the cover charge was $10 — for $15 it was an open bar. On Fridays, there was no open bar, and the charge was $10.

It was early yet, and the gigantic club was fairly empty. Eddie and I grabbed a drink (again I settled for a vodka tonic — of the three bars in the joint, no one had ever heard of a lemon drop) and headed upstairs to check out the VIP room. Up to 25 people can fit into this room that costs $2000 for the night.

If I was surprised to hear how cheap it was for the cover and an open bar, I was stunned into silence at the cough-able price of the VIP room. Two thousand bucks? Flores said that the price included up to 25 normal-sized bottles of liquor (they figured a bottle per person) and, yes, people can take the leftovers home. The room overlooked the dance floor downstairs; two glass doors opened to reveal both the club and a flat-screen TV that showed a live video feed of the DJ booth (the DJ this evening was an import from Russia).

The place reminded me of a hip club in San Francisco, Ruby Skye. For a VIP area we had to share with others, my group had paid $300 (not including a $20 cover charge or drinks). We received only one bottle of our choice with the booth. With the bottle of vodka we chose, we were given cranberry juice, limes, and plenty of tonic to make the vodka last. What we paid for, in essence, were the guaranteed seats, whereas everyone outside of our little area was forced to stand or dance. At Balak, I saw what I'd never seen at another dance club — seating everywhere. Placed throughout the club were about a hundred small, round tables with white tablecloths, each with two ashtrays and a couple of chairs.

The Mayan decor was carried throughout the inside — flat reproductions of the statues outside were built into the walls, but the old-world feel was replaced with new-world club technology. Scenes from what looked like a performance by Cirque du Soleil played on a giant screen against the wall behind the stage and dance floor. We sat at one of the tables, and a man in a green coat was suddenly at my side, asking if I needed anything. I declined service, noticing for the first time the dozens of similarly dressed men and women waiting with their notepads and napkins to serve hundreds of arriving guests.

Flores mentioned that Saturday nights at Balak drew a larger percentage of Americans than Friday nights, and he attributed this to the music — Saturday night there tends to be more house music. Amidst the clubbers pouring through the doors, I found a couple from Minneapolis — older, Caucasian, sharing a drink at a table by the dance floor. They came to Tijuana for vacation and had heard of Balak from a local. While I learned of this couple's traveling exploits around the world (oh really, you went to an island named after women? Wow), I watched the pictures on the screen change — now it was showing silhouettes of women dancing against brightly colored backgrounds.

At 11:30 p.m., the dance floor was "opened." Earlier, I'd asked Flores, "How does one 'open' a dance floor? Can't people go out there and dance whenever they want?"

"You'll see," he'd said. Now I watched as the dancing silhouettes disappeared, and the screen lifted to reveal painfully bright stadium lights — effectively capturing our attention as we blinked with discomfort and sought out its source.

Two men in yellow hardhats came onto the stage as all lights (including the blinding stadium bulbs) went out for a few seconds. When they came back on, fast house beats were pumping and an electronic voice steadily chanted, "Satisfaction... satisfaction."

"These guys can't dance for shit, but they're fun to look at," Eddie said loudly into my ear. The dancers were stiff, too buffed out to be light on their feet, but as soon as they started to remove their clothing, I stopped judging them.

So this was the open dance floor — the music was louder, the beats were faster, and the club was darker. It wasn't long before three go-go girls joined the eye candy onstage. Here were the dancers. These girls shook, gyrated, and spun to the music. One wore a short dress with white, knee-high boots, and the other two sported skin-tight bodysuits cut to reveal their bare midriffs. Occasionally from behind them, the stadium lights would shine as if to make it too uncomfortable for anyone to merely sit and watch.

Despite the energizing music, which Eddie had said was the best he'd heard in years, we were pooped and simultaneously signaled to each other our desire to call it a night. Once through the entrance, I was fooled into thinking we'd stepped into daylight, but Eddie pointed out the multitude of lights surrounding us, each of them aimed at the façade — a sobering effect for those leaving the building, for these were nearly as bright as the stadium lights that had been blinking on and off inside.

I asked an English-speaking doorman where we might go to catch a cab, and he insisted on walking us to the location. Edmundo, the doorman, led us around the side of Balak and through a small outdoor shopping center. I asked him what time Balak closed, and he said, "We close when the last person wants to leave." He left us on a sidewalk, refusing my tip, and a taxi scooped us up within minutes.

Coming Home

Entering the U.S. is not as simple as entering Mexico. We followed the sidewalk, moving faster than the cars that were lined up to our left. Our path led us into the building now operated by the Department of Homeland Security, and we prepped ourselves for the inevitable inquisition, of which Torquemada himself would be proud.

"Why did you visit Mexico?"

"Just for the hell of it."

"Did you buy anything?"

"Nothing that I haven't experienced or ingested already."

"Are you alone?"

"No, that guy is with me," I said, pointing to Eddie. Torquemada called Eddie over.

"You know it's dangerous to be here alone," said Torquemada.

"Yes, hence Eddie," I said, wondering when it would all be over. I imagined the next string of questions would be: When was your last period? Are you sexually active? Do you think I would look better without a mustache? And other invasive, irrelevant facts one might need to know while trying to determine whether or not I'm smuggling an alien holding biological weapons where my breasts might otherwise be. Finally, after demonstrating that I could reproduce the exact facial expression I made when the lady at the DMV took my picture six years ago, we were released into America.

The only way to get back to my car was to follow the winding path that leads to the walking bridge over the freeway.

"So, what do you think? Is there more to TJ than you thought?" Eddie asked as we winded back down on the other side of the bridge.

"I might have to see another movie to be sure," I said.

"We can arrange that," Eddie said, sparing me the dreaded I told you so.

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