Five years after we first met in France, my dear friend Aurelie finally made good last week on her promise to visit me in America. Trotting away from the baggage claim at LAX, suitcases in tow, I babbled on about the great places I would take her during her two-month sojourn: Las Vegas, L.A., Catalina, Joshua Tree, Baja.
“Oh!” she breathed, cutting me short. “I met a man on the plane. He said absolutely, no matter what, don’t go to Tijuana.”
I gritted my teeth, calculating my rebuttal. It wasn’t the first time I’d deflected a panicked response to our southern neighbor. This time, the affront came from a stranger, tarnishing my image as a seasoned tour guide before Aurelie had even taken her first breath of Smell-A smog.
“Listen, Tijuana is full of normal people, just like you and me,” I countered, with a roll of my blue eyes and a toss of blond hair. “Americans watch too much TV.”
To be fair, I should mention that I don’t have a TV, and perhaps I ought to watch more often. It is certainly undeniable that a raging drug war, rampant corruption, and general lawlessness exist across the border. But unlike most of the people who whimper about us white folk becoming instant targets for drive-bys and a host of other atrocities, I’ve actually been to TJ.
Every time Aurelie outlined our prospective itineraries to an inquiring acquaintance, I was chagrined to hear them pounce on Tijuana. One recent evening at a bar in the Gaslamp, we were chatting with some new friends. As soon as the forbidden letters tumbled from Aurelie’s lips, the concerned fellow leaned over and grabbed me mid-sentence.
“Don’t go to TJ!” he pleaded, shaking his head excitedly. “It’s so dangerous — they assume you have money!”
I did what I thought was a good job of masking my contempt. “Oh, okay. Have you ever been there?”
“Well, no, but…” But it didn’t matter. Tijuana was a condemned land.
Later, I pulled Aurelie aside. “If you don’t feel comfortable, it’s not a big deal,” I told her. “There are plenty of other things to do. We don’t have to go.”
But my girl is always up for an adventure. “Do you think it’s okay?” she asked. I nodded, and she said, “Then it’s fine. We will go.”
Typically, I park and walk across the border into downtown Tijuana to spend a day perusing three square blocks of trinkets, tacos, and tequila — mainly because I don’t know where else to go or what else to do. So when a Peruvian friend from work offered to act as our guide, I took him up on it. I was ready to get off the beaten tourist path.
Chito picked us up at 4:30 Saturday afternoon, and we breezed down I–5, unfettered all the way to the border. Aurelie dutifully took out her camera to photograph the big block letters across the concrete overhead: M E X I C O.
Our first stop was a bar called the Sótano Suizo (Suisse basement). It was not at all subterranean, but resembled something similar, tucked behind a small maze of shuttered doors and cold, wet cement structures. Aurelie and I were clearly the lightest skinned of the patrons, but the soccer game playing on screens throughout attracted more attention than either of us. We sat at a corner table near the service bar and took in the images of the Alps on the walls, and neon bathroom signs that read “Frauen” and “Erren.”
A waiter promptly arrived with menus, a round of two-for-one drinks, and a clean ashtray.
“Ooh, we can smoke inside!” cooed my Francophonic friend.
“Shit,” I pouted. “I forgot my Nicorette.” A few Dos Equis and a plate of sautéed shrimp doused with olive oil and jalapeños later, I puffed my first personally imported Gauloise cigarette of the evening. Chito kept the beer coming and paid the tab when we ladies went to the Frauentoilette.
“Oh, Chito, thank you,” we chimed. “Can I leave the tip?” I asked. The service had been impeccable, even if I’d be overpaying for the plato picante.
“No, no,” he insisted. “I don’t think a man should let a woman pay.” Well, when in Rome.
We still had some time to kill before the doors opened at our main destination, a night club called The Rock, so we stopped by Dandy del Sur bar on Sixth. We stepped over a row of sandbags (improvised flood control from the previous week’s downpours) into a long, low-ceilinged room lit with red lamps. The tables were impossibly short — barely knee-high and the size of cocktail trays — but they lent themselves to an intimate ambiance. We settled at one toward the rear, and a waitress shuffled up as I ran my hands over the cigarette burns in the tablecloth.
“Please don’t criticize,” she joked. “I made it myself.”
Chito and I ordered Dos Equis, but Aurelie wanted to know if she could have coffee. The waitress, a diminutive, shapeless woman dressed in denim from head to toe, contemplated the foreigner with a cocked eyebrow. She appeared bemused. We waited as she weighed her options.
Finally, she issued a verdict: “It’s no problem. I was going to make some for myself.”
Moments later, a Styrofoam cup of hot water and jar of instant Nescafe appeared.
Chito looked perplexed. “You don’t like to drink?” he asked Aurelie.
“No, not so much,” she said.
“What do you like to do?”
Aurelie shrugged. “I don’t know. I like to smoke.” She pressed her thumb and forefinger together and held them up in front of pursed lips.
Shortly after, Chito excused himself to go to the bathroom. As we sang along to Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive,” I thought about how perfectly ordinary the bar, and all the people in it, were. When Chito slid back into his seat, he dropped a cigarette-sized bundle of aluminum foil into my lap. I peeled back a corner to reveal a nugget of marijuana.
“Oh, cool. Thanks,” I said, tucking it into my handbag.
He looked to Aurelie. “Is there anything else you need?”
“I need papers.”
He was off again.
“Your friend is strange,” Aurelie said.
I shrugged. “He’s just showing off.”
We paid the bill while Chito was gone. He came back empty-handed, but we assured him it didn’t matter and chatted while we finished our drinks. I began to wonder who was going to drive home.
The Rock still wasn’t open when we got there at 9:15. We stepped into a bar across the street to use the bathroom, just in time to see a bullfight — that is, in time to see two men under a piece of furry fabric with a head and horns on one end charge around the dining room poking bystanders in the rump. Aurelie snapped pictures of the spectacle with gleeful abandon, giggling and cheering. (Chito had managed to secure rolling papers from a parking attendant.)
A 20-minute wait outside the club turned into 40, in that curious way that time expands in Latin countries. Eventually, we were allowed access to the beige, concrete fortress that was one of TJ’s hot nightspots.
Inside, several levels of tiny cocktail tables formed an amphitheatre overlooking the dance floor. Chito was thrilled to find out that drinks were charged at a flat rate, per person. He also casually mentioned that there was a place to stay close by, if we didn’t want to drive back.
“Oh, no,” I said, holding his gaze. “I’m going home tonight.”
While we waited for the crowd to pack in, Aurelie discovered an affinity for the house piña coladas. I, however, downshifted and took to nursing my drink. Each subsequent round, I passed the new cocktail to Chito. As his inhibitions crumbled, he grew flirty and forward, and I gently reminded him that we were coworkers whose relationship would remain platonic.
As soon as the first clubbers stepped onto the dance floor, Aurelie bounded down to join them. Chito pulled me up to dance beside our table, but after one song, I insisted he go down to keep Aurelie company. Two songs later he returned, shrugging.
“She don’t want me to dance with her,” he explained.
“Well, I’m going down for a little while,” I said. “Will you stay with our things?” Chito looked disappointed, but I flitted off anyway. As I danced, I imagined that our guide might be feeling dejected and unappreciated. But the crowd was lively and the music was a bumpin’, thumpin’ mix of Mexican and American pop hits, so I swung and swayed through a series of songs before I went back up to check on him.
From the top of the staircase, I saw that our table was empty. Nah, I thought. Our coats and bags were where we’d left them under the table. He wouldn’t have left our purses here like that, I assured myself. He’s probably in the bathroom.
I watched Aurelie dancing, although I could barely make her out through the smoke-machine clouds. I continued bopping to the bass, throwing glances behind me to see if Chito had reappeared. When Aurelie resurfaced 15 minutes later, I was still alone.
“Girl, I haven’t seen Chito,” I confessed.
“Where could he go?” she asked calmly.
I shook my head. “I’m going to check the valet to see if his car is still here,” I said. “Wait here with our things.”
The Rock funneled me out onto a side street next to the garage. I marched up to the attendant. “Do you remember my friend we came here with? He had a black VW?”
The attendant remembered well. “He had red sneakers?”
“Yes, that’s him! Can you tell me if his car is still here?”
He was already shaking his head, and grimacing. “No, he left.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, he left about an hour ago.”
“Hijo de puta!” I spat, turning on my heel.
I climbed back into the cavernous club and reported the bad news to Aurelie. “I can’t believe that bastard. I’m going to kill him!” Aurelie nodded in emphatic agreement.
I pulled our waiter aside and explained our unhappy situation. “My friend left us here. Can you believe that?” From his face, I could see that the waiter had figured this out long ago. I sighed. “What do we owe you for the bill?”
“Just leave a tip. It’s okay,” he said. We graciously accepted his pity.
A five-minute, $5 cab ride later, we were at the border. We walked across, pot hidden in panties, to learn that the American remainder of the trek would cost $55. I asked a border patrol officer if it was illegal to hitchhike. “I think so,” he said, then warned: “There’s a lot of people around here you don’t want to get into a car with.”
Probably true. But there was a very nice, docile-looking young man sitting alone in the trolley station. We wandered over.
“Hey, are you waiting for the trolley?” I called.
“I think it left. We can check the schedule,” he said, getting up. A quick consultation confirmed that the final train had left 30 minutes before.
“Sooo, where are you going?” I ventured, as we strolled back to the station benches.
“I’m waiting for a friend to pick me up,” said the friendly guy. “I work at the airport.”
I couldn’t believe our luck. “Oh, I live right by the airport!” and I rattled off the tale of our misadventure.
“That’s not cool,” the friendly guy agreed. “I can’t believe he just left you like that. Let me call my friend and see if he will take you.”
We introduced ourselves, and Umberto began fumbling with several cell phones, swapping out SIM cards and batteries. “This battery is dead, but his phone number is in this one,” he explained. In total, he carried four phones: two for work, one for Mexico, and one for the U.S. One of these managed to deliver a wake-up call to the friend, who agreed to give us a lift.
As we waited on the cold metal benches, buttocks numb, Umberto recounted his own recent mishap in his hometown.
“Two weeks ago, my friend got pulled over and the cops kept his truck,” he told us.
“Whoa,” I said. “How do they just keep his truck?”
“Because they can,” he shrugged. “He hired a lawyer — it cost him $2000 — but they are still looking. There’s no way to find it, really.”
Always the optimist, I offered: “There must be a way to trace it, some records or something.”
This optimism, however, isn’t transitive. It thrives only in the industrialized world.
Umberto enlightened me.
“The police here don’t give you a card,” he said. “They don’t have a badge number or anything. There’s no way to know who pulled him over.”
I let that sink in. My bad luck paled next to the hazards of ordinary life for TJ’s citizens. And I hadn’t met misfortune there — I’d brought it with me.
“The government tells the police not to harass tourists,” Umberto added. “We need them too bad.”
I thought about all the small tokens of kindness Aurelie and I had been offered throughout our evening, and how welcome we’d been made to feel in the border city that was supposedly so inhospitable.
I resolved to support my neighbor. Bad reputation or not, TJ could count on me.