Mexico: it’s a very intimidating place, at least, in my opinion. “It’s a beautiful place, actually,” my friends and family who have vacationed in the Yucatan peninsula and far away from drug cartel centers have boasted. There is no argument to be upheld that Mexico has it’s hidden gems and beautiful stretches of land as does any other country.
My view of Mexico has stemmed from the media and to no surprise; it’s where a good portion of American opinion on national and international issue is formed. It’s been drilled in my head by CNN, CBS and ABC news that Mexico is teeming with a desperate, impoverished people that make every and any attempt to cross the border in order to achieve a life marginally better than what they left behind. Mexican drug cartels are something to be feared and never spoken of over the heavily surveillanced borders. Past the pristine and grandeur resorts and vacation spots is a country that is ready to shed the unnecessary baggage that the United States has laid upon it.
It was my idea to visit Mexico. Nathan assured me that a quick stop in Tijuana would be enough to satisfy my appetite to live on the wild side for a few hours. He also said that we wouldn’t need passports to get back into the United States, a state ID would suffice. We stopped in San Diego (mostly just to say we went to San Diego) for a few hours, walking around Seaport Village, eating fabulous and dirt cheap Mexican food from a dive joint that resembled a condemned coral-colored cantina and discussing a potential movie adaptations of our lives (we’re a pretentious couple). The Mexican border was closer than I thought it would be; within 30 minutes we were passing the last United States exit and within another ten, we were being herded by Mexican border patrol past several brief checkpoints. My palms were a sweaty mess, my right knee bounced nervously up against the glove compartment and my eyes darted all around the drastically altered landscape before me.
“Are you okay?” Nathan asked from the drivers seat, apparently amused.
“Yes,” I answer curtly but the quiver in my tone says otherwise and he calls me out on my bluff.
“We can turn around whenever you want.”
I refuse and we continue on our journey, deeper into the “suburbs” of Tijuana. I say suburbs because I don’t want to necessarily label the tin homes built into the side of the hills neighboring the city as “squalor” because there may actually be a worse part of town we haven’t seen yet. The highway goes on for miles without an exit or turn off point. Nathan’s roaming rates are charging him an arm and a leg to be using his GPS and I feel awful about it. Finally Siri, with her thick Australian accent, prompts us to turn onto a street that sounds like the opening address of a Hugo Chavez speech.
We venture into the city, the conditions aren’t better than those of the suburbs. I see a billboard for a restaurant called Tacolandia and I come to the conclusion that I’ve pretty much seen it all. I tell Nathan that I just want to stop at a bar, take a shot of tequila, and be on our merry way back into the states. We find a hotel/casino near the border and are directed to a parking space by a shady valet man. We walk in, take a seat at the bar, order a shot of the finest tequila I have yet to down, with salt and the lime of course, and exit mere minutes later.
Now, what looks to be a cop is standing next to the valet man and halts our car as we attempt to leave. He looks over at the valet man, yells, “Dos,” the valet man nods in agreement and the cop looks back over at us and extends his hand. “Two dollars,” Nathan mutters to me and I hastily pull out two American dollars, hand it over and he ushers us away, folding the money into his breast pocket. “Corrupt,” I seethe as we drive away, “Let’s just get out of here.” We arrive at the United States border, the checkpoints are far more extensive than those going into Mexico.
We hand over our state IDs and the officer looks annoyed. “Where are your passports?” I almost choke. Nathan leans back in his seat and cooly explains to the officer that, as he understood it, we didn’t need a passport if we were going into the border towns. “Incorrect,” the officer dryly replies.
The likelihood of me defecating my shorts spikes and I can feel my heart bang against my rib cage. I swear to myself that if the both of us come out unscathed and make it over the border that Nathan will have hell to pay. The officer takes a look at our IDs, asks us a series of personal questions and waves us off to a secondary checkpoint where we are greeted by another officer who is younger and exponentially more laid back. “Hey, whatcha guys here for?” He engages in friendly small talk with Nathan and I try to figure out if this kid regularly comes to work high.
He smiles at me and sensing the air of tension and the fact that I cannot stop shaking he assures me that we’ll be just fine. I breathe a sigh of relief, attempt to dry my sweaty palms over my sweaty legs and mentally make the sign of the cross. Five minutes later, Tijuana becomes more distant in the rearview mirror as we make our way north back to San Diego. North. What a beautiful, goddamn word.