Oh Mexico. Well…
We went there.
Another place that wasn’t on our itinerary, but we were close enough and had the time, so we went.
In recent years, the tourist numbers going to Tijuana for the day have plummeted due to the drug lords and gun battles and such. But we got talking to a sheriff at Legoland and he reckoned it was safe enough if you stuck to the main shopping stretch. (Mind you, he also said he wouldn’t take his kids there).
Some of us were a little anxious about the excursion, but at the same time we didn’t want to miss the adventure.
We took very few valuables with us. The women left their handbags in the car (the risk of having them stolen from the car was less than if you had them on you in Mexico) and hid their jewellery under clothing. And only the men carried any money. We had to be on high alert and aware of our surroundings at all times.
We walked across the border, leaving the car on the US side.
I expected the Mexican border to be thorough, full of security and armed guards. But it was such a non-event that I had to ask my brother if we were through yet or not. It was just like a gate. You walked past two armed men and no one even asked to see our passports. Only random people were selected for further checks.
My brother had told us to brace ourselves for the ‘aroma’ of Tijuana. To get to the main shopping drag you crossed a footbridge that passed over a drain-like area where people were living in squaller. Abject poverty has a smell that stays with you for a long time.
Aside from tv, we had never seen this level of poverty before and it was distressing. The boys couldn’t comprehend why they were left to live like that. I, myself, found it hard to comprehend.
Less than a few metres into Mexico, we had our first open offer of drugs. No, not the ‘drug store’ variety of drugs. I couldn’t believe they were so brazen about it.
We were also confronted with hawkers trying to lure us into their legit (well I think) pharmacies. There were so many chemists.
Funny thing was that we needed a chemist that day. Brayden had developed a mystery rash that morning and needed antihistamines but he sure didn’t need them enough to buy them in Mexico! (I was later able to pick some up at the local L.A. supermarket).
If you have poor teeth, it pays to keep your mouth shut in Mexico. There were so many dentists out on the street trying to lure you into their chairs. Every couple of shops there was a dentist!
In Mexico, I soon discovered that hawkers promoting their wares was the way of life. Store owners didn’t stand inside their stores, but out on the footpath to lure you inside with the promise of a good bargain. And they were persistent, sometimes following you up the street in hopes that you might change your mind and buy something. It did not pay to be polite on the streets of Mexico. If you spoke, even a simple “No, thanks”, you had given them the attention they were seeking. It was hard but it’s how it was done. By the end of the day I had got good at keeping my eyes ahead, giving a simple smile or a shake of the head if I had to.
The sights, sounds and smells were all new in Mexico. Our senses were totally bombarded. The boys stuck to us like glue until they relaxed a little and started to enjoy the day. To be honest, I never actually felt at risk during the day. The people were lovely, although in your face every moment, and there was a big police presence in the streets.
However, that could have been because there was some sort of man hunt in place. Around lunch there were a lot of police cars blocking streets and ‘policia’ milling around. Later we saw them throw some man against the boot of a police car and arrest him in the aggressive manner you expect only to see on tv!
After an hour or so we’d settled into the Mexican pace and had relaxed a little. There were plenty of lovely things to purchase in Mexico.
Many being hand embroidered right there in front of you.
At first my brother did the haggling for us. He’s traveled all over South America (did I mention we were sticking to him like glue) and had no problem just walking off if the store owner didn’t like what he was prepared to pay. Most of the stalls sold the exact same wares so you could easily find another store owner prepared to bargain further.
After watching Scott do it a few times I gave it a go for myself. It was easier than I thought and I enjoyed the challenge. I decided what I wanted to purchase, made sure they had to type I desired, and then asked the price. Prior to bargaining I decided what I would be prepared to pay for the article – a fair but not exorbitant price – remembering that the store owners determine their price by how rich they feel you are. Once the price was announced you could either hesitate, and they would naturally drop the price again, fearing you would leave otherwise (and most of the time the prices would drop by half or more) or you could just state that the price was too high, in which case they would ask you what you would be prepared to pay. Most of the time they would sell it to you for your price, or do a bit more haggling until you both agreed. It was not nearly as daunting as I had expected and I enjoyed this new shopping experience.
Even the boys had a go at a bit of haggling. They didn’t do well. The lady wouldn’t budge an inch for them. She was the only one all day that didn’t drop her prices. I suspect it was because she was negotiating with children who had already set their hearts on an item…something they saw and wanted for a friend. But to them, just the experience of purchasing something in Mexico was a thrill.
Oh and we stood out as Australians. At first we couldn’t figure our how but the store owners were addressing us as ‘Aussies’ and attempting their best ‘G’day mates’ for us so my brother had to go and ask one man how he knew. He pointed to Liam’s and the boys’ hats as the dead giveaways. In the US we often got the comment, “Nice hats” which I think was more sarcastic than anything but I was surprised at how few people wore hats, even out in the belting sun of an amusement park.
My best purchase of the day was a photo opportunity. The memory of it has me smirking already. 🙂
(Oh in Mexico you pay for everything. If you want to take a photo of a person you pay. If the person offers to take a photo for you, you pay. Ask a question, you pay. My smart-alecky son, I’ll let you guess which, tried to use this to his advantage. When I asked him to pose for a photo he asked for a $1. We laughed and then told him to smile. He told us smiles cost extra! Kids!)
On every single street corner there was a donkey painted as a zebra, called a ‘zonkey’. I decided that it would be a great photo opportunity and I was prepared to pay for all the effort these people had gone to. Just not the $20 or $10 that some of the owners tried to charge. I found the best painted zonkey and offered $2 for two kids. They snapped it up and then literally grabbed my boys and roughly plonked them on the zonkey. They manhandled them into outfits and ripped their hats off them to replace them with straw hats. (And I do mean ripped, we had to intervene to undo the chin straps before the men pulled the kids heads off)
Oh we were laughing so hard at my boys. The experience was… well… rather new to them. Clearly Mexicans treat their children with a bit more…let’s say….vigour, than the boys are used to.
To make both boys visible on the zonkey, one man was pushing and pulling the boys to get them into position. My brother Scott had to step in and prevent Brayden from being shoved right off the zonkey.
And the men didn’t just tell the boys to smile, they grabbed their faces and pushed their lips into a smile. The boys weren’t game enough to move or say otherwise.
The photos aren’t great as we were laughing too hard to pay attention to what we were capturing plus we kind of wanted to rescue the boys from the situation I paid good money to put them into.
(Plus, for the donkey’s sake, we had to put an end to the photos as quickly as possible. Every time the donkey put his head down, to eat the hay in front of him, he was kicked under the chin to force him to raise his head. That we did not laugh at.)
(Sorry boys. But gee did I get a good story out of your misfortune! Hehehe!!)
There were lots of places to eat in Tijuana and it was nearly impossible to make it past an eating venue without being accosted by waiters trying to convince you to eat at their establishment. They particularly wanted tourists to dine with them as it’s good advertising for them. They sit you right out the front where everyone can see you.
We could have dined at McDonalds or Burger King.
(No those prices aren’t in dollars, they use the same symbol for their peso. One peso being less than ten US cents)
But part of the experience of another country is eating the local food so I ordered these little soft chicken tacos. They were lovely.
Later the boys found a street vendor selling churros. These were a different variety to Sea World’s fat and long churros. These were short, thin and crisper and a bargain for $1US a bag.
After our morning of shopping and a bite of lunch we headed back to the border. The rule of thumb is to leave early or extra late to avoid the queues back into the US. Well someone lied!!
It did not take us 5 min!
Nor was it shorter this particular day if you got there early.
After braving the Tijuanan footpaths and overpasses
we found the end of the border crossing line.
It wove up and down and around the streets for further than the eye could see.
At the end of the line there was a shuttle bus operator convincing people that his bus would be the far faster option. He estimated that the people would be standing in line for well over 3 hours. He convinced us very quickly, even if he was exaggerating (which, it turns out, he absolutely was not!). At $6US a person, kids for free, we figured a seat in a bus was better than standing in that long queue out in the hot sun.
(Buses have their own line at the border, which is a tad shorter than the car lines. Mind you it goes a LOT slower than the car lines, but a lot faster than the people standing in the queue. At the border all of the bus passengers have to get out and walk through border security).
When we paid for our shuttle bus ride we hadn’t actually seen the shuttle. Mistake number one.
We walked up to the mini van we were directed to and informed them that it was already full and not enough seats for the seven of us. They disagreed and started indicated where each of us should sit. The children were free because we were required to have them sit on our laps. Mistake number two.
So into our mini van that had seats for 12 we squeezed 20 people. All we needed was chickens to complete the experience.
Brayden however was relieved at the sight of the bus. He told us he was expecting a ute with a crate on the back. Something a little like this I suppose.
At first the bus was tolerable, certainly better than standing. Brayden found his own comfy spot on the floor with his legs stretched out under the chairs. I’m telling you we were like sardines in that van!
But after three hours in that van, in that border crossing queue, we were at the end of our tethers. But what more can you do but wait for the experience to be over.
And no, there was no air conditioning in the van. I suspect you pay extra for working air conditioning. The bus drivers did however leave the back and side doors open for us as we inched along the freeway. This also allowed the numerous street hawkers to peddle their wares to us. With captive customers these vendors did very well.
Into our third hour we finally sighted the border, showed our passports, and walked back to the US. Thank goodness for that!!
While the experience was fascinating, I’m not sure we’re the kind of tourists that are up to the uniqueness of travelling outside of first world countries.
Thank you Mexico for an interesting day, but I can’t say I’ll be returning in a hurry. 🙂