My first trip outside of the Country was via the Naval Reserves in 1994.
I flew out to Sand Diego California to meet my new ship (well for the next 2 weeks at least). One great thing about San Diego (besides the Zoo) is the little red train to Tijuana, Mexico. I was 45 minutes away from ‘not America‘.
It is only through the filter of years gone by that you can really reduce a trip down to the moments and images that stick with you.
The sights and sounds of a ‘not first world’ tourist destination was a carnival-like atmosphere of sights and sounds. I loved it.
In the years following this trip, I have been to the beautiful parts of Mexico. Tijuana is not the beautiful part. But I think in retrospect it was the harsh contrast of Tijuana compared to my life back home that really affected me.
I remember how all the cars seemed to be from 20 years before. There were vehicles I remember seeing on my street from childhood.
I remember how disturbing the ‘Chiclet girls‘ were to me.
There are lots of children sorta of mindlessly bumping into Americans offering to sell Chiclets and chocolate. They are repeating their wares over and over again in hopes of penetrating your indifference. This is a form of begging where at least you get something in return, it really made me notice the poverty around me. It is disturbing to see children beg. I had lived in enough American cities to be immune to adults who were panhandling, it is altogether new to tune out children.
It was also during this first foreign foray that I developed a fancy for street food. This was before it was cool to trust the guy selling elotes (grilled corn slathered in a creamy chili- and lime-spiked sauce with cheese) out of his cooler. There was some degree of real risk here, but ‘when in Rome‘ right?
I knew that there were things happening in Tijuana simply because you could not do those things in America. It was enough for me to walk past the Donkey Show. At that impressionable young age I felt that actually paying to go in may leave a certain black mark on my honor that would be very difficult to shower off.
Exploring a Red Light District can be interesting, but you also have to be mentally prepared to accept the darker side of human nature.
I also developed a habit that would follow me for years when venturing overseas.
I would wait a while to take in the gambit of various ‘tourist trap‘ merchandise indigenous to the area. After surveying the lay of the land and the common prices, I would purchase at least one commonplace item to memorialize the trip. In border town Mexico, that was a rough wool poncho, brightly colored. And this Chacmool coaster set;
Don’t forget to not keep all of your money in the same wad, separate it into several different amounts and locations. You can’t claim, “All I have is 10” when they can see the 20.
The two things I noticed then that have changed over time are as follows.
I did not have any apprehension that crime was afoot or that I needed to be ‘careful’. I had a certain street smarts by then anyway, but I also felt that semi-invincibility that comes with being 20 years old and stupid.
The other thing I noticed was how casual the racial profiling was on my way back through immigration. White guys like me walk through with a wave, not even checking my ID, anyone brown had to wait in a very long line. Today everyone is checked through, progress I suppose.
At this point in my life I was interested in the underbelly of society. So, that is what I tended to seek out/notice. I am sure I would have noticed other things if I were to have gone back to Tijuana later in life, but trips are moments in time.
Tijuana, Mexico was a good first step. It gave me the bug, I was going to see the world, one port at a time.
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