23) Drive to Mexico

I challenge the world to show me a border crossing more disparate and paradoxical than that which divides United States and Mexico—at least where San Diego meets Tijuana. Politics aside, the border situation there is a mess. A filthy, putrid, trash-clogging-the-culverts mess.

Admittedly, I have driven across only three international borders: United States-Canada, South Africa-Swaziland and United States-Mexico. I have, however, done a fair amount of globe-trotting (evidenced in part in Oh, the Places I’ve Been) including to “third-world” nations and others poorer than the United States (in an economical, standard-of-living way—I’m not talking about debatable happiness quotients and the like). I have never seen a greater dichotomy between the “haves” and the “have-nots” than I did when I drove through sparkly and lovely San Diego and entered Tijuana, which sparkles only with trash glimmering in the sun and is lovely only when it’s seen in the rear-view mirror. I have no doubt that San Diego has its own dirty underbelly that is much overshadowed by its beauty and opulence, but I refuse to believe it is anywhere near the level of decay that afflicts Tijuana. The decay that is so powerfully nauseating it stings the nostrils and forces drivers to rapidly crank up their windows and switch on the A/C to keep cool.

Crossing the border made me disgusted, saddened and grateful. Disgusted by the odious air and the hideous amounts of garbage strewn haphazardly about the roadside, in the culverts and around people’s homes; saddened at the reality that people actually live in such abysmal and grotesque conditions; and grateful to reside in a place (block, city, state, nation—take your pick) that is at the opposite end of the spectrum of, well, places in which I’d be grateful to live. Or, I think, places in which most people would be grateful to live. I realize Santa Monica, California, is not everyone’s cup of tea, but I think I’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who would favor Tijuana—at least where it abuts the border.

Fortunately, I had been to Mexico before (always having flown in), and could close my gaping mouth with the knowledge that we were headed a couple hours south of the border to the charming, pretty town of Punta Banda—really a sand spit more than a town, but perfect for a relaxing weekend getaway.

In addition to driving to Mexico for the first time, I went boogie boarding for the first time, which was sad considering I live a mile from the beach and love playing in the surf. I loved it, though, and hope to do it more often! We also went zip lining and clambering across suspension bridges; snacked on delicious tamales, olives and nuts that were all but free at a roadside stand; and checked out the tourist trap known as La Bufadora.


La Bufadora spouts and sprays tourists.

If I had been out ambling around and randomly stumbled on one of North America’s largest blowholes, I would have been pretty pleasantly surprised. As it has already been discovered—and completely exploited, which I’ll get to in a second—it’s still fun watching the waves roll into the sea cave, trying to anticipate when the next set will force a geyser of water nearly a hundred feet in the air.

I refer to it as a tourist trap not to be tired and cliché, but to offer an accurate assessment of my experience at the site. The gauntlet of countless vendors and kitschy stores visitors have no choice but to walk through to reach the blowhole is so long it feels like a trap. We’ve been walking for days, past store after store selling one unnecessary thing after another, none of which seem related to the marine geyser, which we obviously came to see. Surely it’s right up ahead, no? Oh, a little further you say? Okay. But first, let’s heed your suggestion, step into your store and have a look at all the magnificent, relevant things you have for sale.   

Now, I get it. I understand that tourist destinations offer local vendors an easy way to make a buck, while also providing visitors with treasured keepsakes and classy mementos to commemorate their trip. I mean, on a trip to Beijing, who doesn’t want to buy a small bag on a key ring that contains a live goldfish? (Yes, that’s a real thing). Or how about a doughnut magnet from Corfu, Greece, because, you know, visitors flock to the Greek islands for their doughnuts. (I’m now kicking myself for not having taken a picture of it when I was there). Or maybe the perfect way to remember that visit to Scotland is returning home with a bagpipe-playing air freshener? (Actually, that sounds pretty funny).

While we didn’t see any of the aforementioned “goodies”—probably because we didn’t enter any of the stores—we did see plenty of other weird, mostly useless stuff. What bothered me the most, however, was the few stores that paraded exotic animals on short leashes in front of their stores. To, what, lure tourists inside? Yes, I’ll patronize your store because you collar and leash leopards to parade around. A cramped, muggy store on a bustling road guiding people to a blowhole is the prime environment for such a wild animal.

Before I digress too much more, the blowhole is fun to see and, according to Trip Advisor, one of the top attractions in Ensenada. Maybe it says something about Ensenada, maybe it says something about me for not being over the moon about it; I’m not sure. Being a writer, I’m passionate about making things up and telling stories, so what do I know?

All in all we had a blast and the time flew by. I never did eat that mescal worm as I had hoped—I have a penchant for trying weird edibles, like durian (aka ‘poop fruit’) in Thailand and burnt ants in Colombia—but I did drink tequila. Its smell and potency was somewhat diminished in my mango margarita, but I was content with my accomplishment of drinking the local alcohol despite my massive disdain for it (thanks, 21st birthday celebration). I was also content with my accomplishment of driving to Mexico—perhaps the biggest success being safely driving once across the border, as my eyes had a hard time focusing on the road rather than the decrepit state of the area.

Have you driven across national borders that depict two places more dissimilar than San Diego and Tijuana? If so, I’d be interested in hearing about them!


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