In a cover article this past summer, you folks at the READER mentioned a place in far northeastern Tijuana that is referred to as El Fin Del Mundo(The End of the World). It's a place I know well. I am a Southern California native living in El Fin Del Mundo. It's not really the end of the world. In fact it's the beginning of mine.
If you cross the US-Mexico border at Otay Mesa, then make a left onto Avenida Industrial, it will take you directly to the on ramp that leads to the Corridor 2000.
El Dos Mil (The Two Thousand) as it's called, is a highway that connects the Tijuana-Tecate toll road east of Tijuana's maquiladoras (sweatshops) with a place just south of Rosarito called Popotla. The 2000 is a near pothole free, lightly traveled modern highway that can get you from the heat of southeast San Diego's Otay Mesa region to the cool beaches of the Ensenada-Rosarito area in less time than it takes to play The Beatles White Album or The Rolling Stones Exile on Main Street discs.
When you take the 2000 you completely avoid the San Ysidro crossing, the chaos that is downtown Tijuana and the traffic backup that develops as you drive west along the border fence (especially lately since the Mexican military has reopened its checkpoint) before turning south at the entrance to Las Playas de Tijuana. You even miss a toll booth or two. Not to mention the criminals who lurk along the coastal corridor.
Of course El Dos Mil does have its minor flaws. For one thing it's a favorite drop off point for corpses every time the cartel wars flare up. There's not a lot of robbing on the 2000 but there's a lot of dumping.
I used to walk the 2000 several times a week when I worked in San Diego and still do walk it on occasion. You learn not to stare at anything rolled up in a blanket or rug. The tough part is the odor of decaying dead dogs. There's a lot of roadkill out there and every time I come upon the stench of death I start scanning frantically for a dog to confirm that it isn't a human body I smell.
The 2000 roughly separates my palatial wooden shack in Lomas Del Encinal (Oak Hills) from an area called Altiplano (High Plains). Remember the movie High Plains Drifter with Clint Eastwood. Those crazy characters in that movie wouldn't stand a chance in these High Plains. For one thing they're not affiliated or aligned with a cartel. That would easily turn them from the predators they are into the prey.
Tijuana's local television and print media, as well as police stats (such as they are) would probably confirm what most residents already know. The Altiplano (High Plains) section of Barrio Mariano Matamoros is a buzzing hive of car thieves, armed robbers, kidnappers, safe houses and pretty much anything that has to do with smuggling undocumented workers and drugs.
Since I am a resident of this oft maligned area of Tijuana I don't feel that I am insulting my neighbors with the above words but merely stating what has been written and said. Now let me write what doesn't get said nearly as much. For every gun toting delinquent that lurks amongst the cinder block houses and wooden shanties of my neighborhood there are dozens of hard working men and women who toil in factories, motels and construction sites on both sides of the border.
Obviously that has dropped some since the current economic downturn but the connection is still there. To say that San Diego would not be what it is today without Tijuana next to it would not be a lie and vice versa.
Be it food, entertainment, housing, employment or something as mundane as gas stations. San Diego has its way of doing things and Tijuana has its own. Sometimes the styles compliment one another and other times they clash. Either way they're fun to watch.
Take public transportation for instance. Specifically buses. First of all, the San Diego buses are for the most part newer than Tijuana's buses. This helps to eliminate a lot of the 'little things' that can plague older vehicles.
For example, I have never been sitting on a seat in a San Diego MTS bus and at the first sharp turn have the entire seat cushion detach itself from the metal frame because the bolts that fasten it had rattled out. You can find yourself awkwardly sprawled in the aisle if you're not quick enough to grab onto something. You just don't have these problems on San Diego buses. And that's a good thing.
Another difference between San Diego and Tijuana buses is the entertainment. On most of the Tijuana routes, especially those centered around downtown and the border crossing at San Ysidro. you'll find the musicians. I'm not talking about the ubiquitous mariachi bands that cluster at the end of Avenida Revolution by the Hotel Nelson. They're wonderful but the area is to much on the beaten trail. I'm referring to the solitary minstrels who ride the buses and play for change.
Talk about a tough gig!
It's difficult enough standing on a lurching bus while you hang onto the tubular hand holds with two clenched fists. Try doing it while playing a musical instrument. No hands to grab the safety bar. Not easy I say.
As for your audience. You're not exactly playing to a bunch of dedicated groupies wearing your concert jerseys. Talk about a tough crowd. It's mostly poor, tired, working class folks. That makes some of the music I hear on these buses all the more remarkable. There are several that come to mind;
One was a young guitarist. Dressed in faded blue jeans and wearing an old ruffled blouse that had seen better days. The acoustic guitar in her hands looked way to large for her tiny physique. But she clenched the instrument confidently as she started playing. There was nothing memorable about her guitar style as she began the intro to her first song.
Then she started singing.
Wow! What a voice. Her range was fantastic. twice I checked to see if she had a portable speaker slung from her shoulder. There wasn't one. It was all her. Sweet, powerful and determined. All in one unforgettable performance. It sounded like she was singing in a vaulted cathedral and not the blue & tan line that runs to the 2000.
The bus minstrels usually sing two or three tunes, collect what change they can, then hop off the bus in order to play on the return route. This young gal sang two. Both were her own compositions. At least I'd never heard them before. Both songs were about Tijuana. The suffering that the poor city has endured and the hardships its citizens face in the daily struggle to survive.
This girl was good. She used her voice like a second instrument. Her vocals were the lead to her rhythmic strumming. I hope that someday she gets the mega recording contract that she deserves. Unfortunately, this is Tijuana. Where many an artist labors in eternal obscurity. Unlike myself, some of them are very talented.
The second musicians that stand out in my mind were a couple whose performance I caught this past summer.
At first I thought that the tambourine and bongo carrying duo were brother and sister. They had the same long, wavy black hair, cinnamon colored skin and large brown eyes. I would have guessed their ages as the same as the thin girl with the powerful voice.
As I watched them interact it became apparent that they were a couple and very much in love. I'm just old enough to barely remember the late 60's and early 70's. These two kids dressed like hippies. Raggedy denim pants, huarache sandals, tye dyed t-shirts and buckskin vests. The young fellow even had a bota bag with him. I hadn't seen one of those since Papa Jerry was leading The Dead.
Their music was good. It wasn't jaw dropping like the thin girl's voice but their enthusiasm and interaction made up for it. They sang bright, peppy cover songs. Including 'Dia Luna...Dia Pena' by one of my favorite groups Manu Chao.
After the kids finished their performance the girl collected donations. When she was done she ran back toward her boyfriend, her face beaming. She showed him 'their' earnings. He smiled then she put the money into 'her' pocket. I liked that.
I saw this couple on the same bus line as the waif with the impressive voice. The blue & tan buses that leave the border and go to the east side of Tijuana.
Tijuana's bus system differs from that of San Diego's in that there is no MTS running the whole show. There are many different companies, who battle for monopolies of various city routes. Each company paints there buses a certain color scheme and that's how they're referred to by Tijuanenses. For instance, there's the blue & whites, the greens, the blue & tans, the all reds and the red & whites to name some.
The quality of buses can run the gamut from the sleek, new 'Greyhound' style of the blue & whites, to the third world, failed nation look of some of the red & whites. I am most familiar with the latter. They are the only company that traverses the spine jarring route that leads to my palatial wooden shack in El Fin Del Mundo.
It was on the last line, in one of their beat up, rickety old buses, that I heard one of the most memorable performances of my life.
The Altiplano-Otay border route is an odd place to undergo a musical epiphany - or is it?
The passengers were the usual mixture for a weekday rush hour commute. Maquiladora workers, students and the tiny little Indian women who speak no Spanish but chatter away constantly in their native tongues to the many children who cling to their long skirts. It was the end of another work week and even the normally energetic children were subdued to a degree.
He was older than me. Much older. His dress was a combination of weathered rural and worn down urban. He wasn't dirty or unkempt. Not at all. The man appeared clean and well groomed. His clothes just looked very used. And so was his guitar. It reminded me of something Willie Nelson might play when he's singing 'Angel Flying to Close to the Ground.'
This bus riding troubador didn't sing. At least not with words. The old gentleman calmly plugged in the guitar microphone on his aged acoustic to the tiny portable speaker that hung from one of his angular shoulders. The speaker box looked to be an old model. It appeared to be constructed from a heavy gauge of sheet metal and if it had ever been painted it had long since rubbed off from handling. The whole setup seemed bulky and uncomfortable.
He turned on the speaker, adjusted the volume, and began to play just as the beat up, nineteen passenger mini bus started lurching and rattling its way up a steep portion of Avenida Teran Teran - A road known more as a dumping ground for casualties of Tijuana's drug wars than unforgettable musical performances. But that's Tijuana these days.
The lean old man with the weathered old guitar never sang a word. Nor did he play two or three songs. Just one long one that wasn't long enough. His thin fingers and the guitars strings spoke for him. With a nimbleness that was impressive to behold I watched and listened as his hands told me his story.
Maybe it was because I was dog tired after a ten hour day of washing putrefying food off of rich peoples plates. Maybe it was because I was worried sick. You see there were rumors floating around that 'La Crisis' was going to slash everyones hours (It did, which is why I have the time to write this article). Maybe it was just because I was sick tired of feeling my own miserable pain and wanted to see how someone else dealt with theirs. The old man with the old guitar showed me how.
He played that acoustic like it had been a part of his body all his life. Like the strings were attached to his heart at one end and his soul to the other. He told us how hard his life had been and how hard he knew it would continue to be. The sound he created was not that of dexterous fingers upon a musical instrument. It was the trials and tribulations of the human psyche.
His music would admit no regrets. The tune was haunting yet uplifting at the same time. Life didn't seem unbearable after all. There was still some beauty to be found in this ugly world that mankind seems hell bent on building using the devil's blueprints.
It was just one song. But then so is Led Zeppelin's 'Stairway to Heaven.' One great song. I gave the old man a ten peso coin and thanked him. Coffee's Ready Gotta Go