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"Tijuana dance and hold my hand..."
All Rights Reserved ©1997 Duncan R Fry
Tijuana, Mexico - it conjures up visions of sun-drenched siestas, guitar strumming sleepy senores in sombreros, and sultry suntanned strutting senoritas (That's enough alliteration, get on with it-Ed)
Well, the reality is quite different. It's a sleazy border town that can be a real trap for the unwary traveller.
We had decided to make a quick visit to Tijuana while we were in Anaheim for the NAMM show one year. There were five of us including myself, all bundled into our rented turbo charged Thunderbird (hey, trade shows are not all hard work, you know!)
Tijuana is only about a hundred miles down the freeway, past the nuclear power station and San Diego - an ideal day trip for some souvenirs and cheap tequila. On the way down we kept seeing large numbers of car transporters full of wrecked cars heading in the same direction. Odd, we thought.
You're not allowed to take rented cars into Mexico, since it would probably get stripped, and your insurance stops at the border. On the US side there is a huge carpark, where you can leave your car for about $20 a day, and walk across the border.
The border crossing into Mexico by car is huge - about 24 lanes wide in each direction, with border guards to inspect your papers, but on foot you just walk through a turnstile! No guards, no nothing! It's a bit like entering a sports stadium like the MCG or SCG, but with less security! You just walk through, the turnstile goes clank-clank and Wow, there you are in a foreign country.
When you stop and think about it, the lack of border controls is understandable; I mean, what possible illegal items could you take into Mexico that they haven't already got!
From the border you haggle with a taxi driver for a cheap ride downtown. The Tijuana taxis are all mid 70's American cars, and all totally rooted. You could walk downtown, but it seems like a mile or so, and the taxi fare is only about $3. Once in the taxi, you realise why there were so many wrecked cars being transported down the road. All along the Mexican side of the border are panel shops, in tiny buildings, with cars being pulled apart and welded right there on the street. Tijuana labour rates are obviously a lot better for cheap car repairs than Los Angeles. It may break in half down the road, but as long as you're back across the border, what do they care?
Downtown Tijuana is a paradise for all sorts of souvenirs, usually very cheap; Mexican rugs, silver jewellery, fake Rolexes, and more Louis Vuitton luggage than he could possibly have made if he worked 28 hours a day, 8 days a week! My favourite souvenir was a collection of packets of cigarettes, made from genuine Chicken Shit, Turkey Shit, and best of all 'Canguroo shit' (their spelling!)
Anyway, after a day spent happily haggling, we were all set to head back home, so we got a taxi back to the border. Only it's $5 now, since they know you're tired!
I mentioned that there were no controls going into Mexico, but going back into the US is the exact opposite-they check you out thoroughly. In a car, be prepared to have sniffer dogs go through it, and to have it stripped if they get suspicious! We were on foot and had our passports with us, and each of us was carefully scrutinised and then waved through.
Until they got to Colin.
If you're a non-American, when you enter the States initially, you fill out a long form, part of which the Customs officer tears off and staples into your passport, to show that you have entered legally and passed through customs etc. Unfortunately he must have run out of staples or missed when he did Col's, because this vital piece of paper had fallen out!
The border guard grabbed Col.
"Not so fast," he grunted, "Your papers haven't been filled in. Go to the end of that line." And he gestured towards a queue of Mexicans waiting to get into the States. The queue must have been half a mile long, at least, and showed no signs of moving.
"You've got to be kidding," yells Col, who was flying to Tokyo the following morning.
"I said get in the line," roared the guard, and whacks Col with his billy stick. We all stood there watching open mouthed as the guard turned to us, waving his stick. "You guys - move on," he orders. So, we got out of there.
We walked back to the car to see if Col's slip of paper had dropped into the boot. No it hadn't, so we sat in McDonalds and waited. And waited.
A couple of hours later, we saw Col waiting in the immigration office, having jumped the queue by calling the guard a "fucking asshole" and getting thrown in the holding pen!
Eventually, about 5 hours after we had walked through, out he came.
"Luckily the immigration guy had been in Australia on R'n'R during Vietnam," he said, "or I'd still be there!"
You'd think that we would have learned our lesson and steered clear of Tijuana for a while, but no, at the NAMM show the following year someone said "I want to buy a leather jacket cheap. Let's go to Tijuana!"
So off we drove again, after first checking our passports very carefully to see that all the paperwork was correct!
There are no shortage of shops selling leather jackets in Tijuana, and after about the sixth or seventh, Col and I got a bit thirsty. Since we already had leather jackets (Mine, US Navy Disposals Store1942, his Victoria Market 1988) we left the boys haggling while we wandered off in search of something to drink.
We had originally intended to get a couple of Cokes, but while gazing into a shop refrigerator we saw some little barrel shaped bottles of Corona Draft. These will make neat souvenirs, we thought, so we bought one each, the shopkeeper opened them, and we sat outside on some steps drinking them.
A couple of minutes later, a Police car ground to a halt in front of us, and two cops got out with guns drawn .
Woohoo, someone's in trouble, we thought, and looked around to see who it was. We didn't have to look very far.
It was us!
Without a word, the cops pulled us to our feet. Grabbing our half finished bottles, they looked at them and threw them in a rubbish bin. Then, at gunpoint, they spreadeagled us up against the car, gave us a thorough frisk, and bundled us in the back seat of the cop car!
I'm sure that when the Tijuana taxis get too ratshit even for the tourists, they turn them into police cars. This had no shockers judging by the constant sound of something thudding against the floor of the car, a back seat with springs poking through, no door trims, and no handles or window winders. However, it did have a couple of pump action shotguns clipped between the front seats. Scared absolutely shitless, clutching our passports, we bounced and shuddered our way along the Tijuana streets until we drew up outside the police station.
The two cops grabbed us out of the back seat and hustled us up the stairs and through the doors. Inside it was just like a scene from a movie. A fan revolved slowly in the roof, and a detective in plain clothes sat with his boots on a desk, a thin cheroot in the corner of his mouth, cleaning his nails with a knife. The two cops gave him our passports. He looked at them, said something in Spanish and they left. Then he turned to us.
"You Australian?" We nodded. "Not American?" We shook our heads. "You can dreenk in ze streets in Australia?"
"Oh, yes, sure can, all the time," we replied, smiling and nodding.
"What, you can dreenk all day, get dronk an' fall down, ees OK?" he asked.
"Oh no, not get drunk, no, no, big trouble then," we replied. He eyed us steadily to see if we were lying. Our knees were knocking like demented castanet players. The thought of possibly spending a few nights in a Mexican jail tends to really focus the mind.
He stood up. "Thees ees Mehico, not Australia." he said. "No dreenking in ze streets. You want to dreenk, there are lots of bars with preety senoritas. You dreenk there, OK?" We nodded.
He handed us our passports.
"OK, you can go now. Don' do eet again."
We thanked him profusely, grabbed our passports and dashed out into the street, where a prisoner in handcuffs took advantage of the diversion to wriggle out of his captors grasp and nick off down a side street.
"Let's get the fuck out of here" said Col, and we headed off back down to the shops as fast as we could.
The others guys were still in the same shop, haggling over the price of the jackets.
"Where've you two been?" they asked.
"We've just been arrested by the Mexican Police," we said.
The guys looked at each other.
"Oh yeah? Pull the other one!"
When we got back to Anaheim we recounted the story to Algis Renkus, a friend of ours.
"I can't believe it," he said "Hell, you could fuck a donkey in the street in Tijuana and no-one would care!
I really gotta start hanging around with you guys - you have so much fun!"
This story first appeared in Connections magazine