Saturday, March 28, 2009

Tijuana Without the Tourists

"I hope I didn't just make a huge mistake." That was the thought running through my mind as I crossed a pedestrian bridge linking the border with the rest of Tijuana. Devoid of all tourists, the bridge is trafficked by locals and poor families huddled together on the side. Below us is a large aqueduct filled with rubble and trash. It is eerily empty and calm, nothing like the hoards of young visitors from San Diego as promised by tour books. This is the scene in Tijuana in late January 2009. Even though a travel alert had been recently issued by the American government for this area of Mexico due to drug and gang related violence, I felt that I had to visit to see first hand what life is like here.

Tijuana, boasting a population of over one and a quarter million, is the largest city in the Mexican state of Baja California located on the Mexican-US border. It is well known as a seedy party destination for high school and university students in the San Diego area due to the lower drinking age across the border and the easy access to controlled pharmaceutical substances. However, this has been drastically changed with the unprecedented surge in drug-related violence in Mexico. Due to a perfect storm of a major gang war and the use of the military in a drug trafficking crackdown, gang-related murders have skyrocketed along the Mexican border towns. I was throughly chilled to find that less than two months prior to my visit, Tijuana logged a total of 170 murders in the month of November alone, which equals a rate of nearly one murder every four hours. What really put me on edge was reading that the gangs have resorted to shooting civilians and tourists in an attempt to keep foreign money out of Mexico to starve and scare the civilians to convince their government to withdraw their military.

Because of all this, I was expecting tourism to be light. As we crossed the border and walked into town, it was obvious that I had underestimated the severity of the problem, as Tijuana had been turned into a tourist ghost town. The sight of a foreign tourist was rare indeed in Tijuana, and we only saw about four or so other groups wandering the streets in the few hours we were there. This left their economy in a precarious state as much of the business there is driven by tourism. According to some estimates, tourism to the area may have fallen by as much as 90% since the gang violence started, and up to 70% of the stores, bars and clubs catering to foreign tourists have gone out of business.

That said, Avenida Revolución, the main tourist stretch, is still quite lively as there are many locals hanging out in the area. Music still blare loudly from the bars, and many stores are open for business, creating a sea of shop owners standing outside of their stores prospecting for customers and smiling pharmacists in white robes standing outside their numerous well-lit pharmacies. However, there is a certain tinge of desperation in the air. You can feel this as soon as you cross the border. As we walked through the metal gates in an opening between the double metal wall that separates the US and Mexico, the mood changes drastically. On the Mexican side, there are people and kids clutching at the fence, staring listlessly across to its rich northern neighbour. This feeling of despair was accentuated by the fact that there was no passport check or any sort entering Mexico, just two sets of unmanned one-way metal gates. I felt like I was entering some sort of compound where they don't care who enters, but the exits are strictly guarded.

As we stepped across the final fence into Mexico after a short moment of hesitation, we were swarmed by taxi drivers competing with each other to offer us a low price for a ride into town. When we refused, their frustration was apparent as one of them blurted out "Don't be a Jew! It's only a dollar for each of you!" The mood of the store owners catering to tourists ranged from desperation to resignation. Every store and bar we passed, clerks and waiters tried to drag us in and offered us spontaneous discounts. As we walked around town, restaurant owners shoved their menus in our faces, and as we walked away, they would shout things such as "OK, I give you 50% off if you eat here!" Finally settling on a small family owned taqueria a block away from the main tourist area, the owner confided in us that "Business is bad. No one comes here anymore."

After lunch, we decided that there was not much to do here, so we went to a bar to sit for a beer before leaving. We chose the Iguana Ranas, a large touristy bar on the second floor of an entertainment complex in the centre of the action on Avenida Revolución. We can't help but notice that the only other patrons we encountered there were a Latino couple who left shortly after we arrived. Considering that this was late Saturday afternoon, I was surprised that there was no one else at this very large bar. From the patio, the fence separating the city of Tijuana and the empty expanse on the American side of the border was clearly visible. It looked as if the city had been chopped off with a giant cleaver, the crowded buildings ending abruptly at the fence. As we left, we were relieved that we were going to go back, and disappointed we did not get to see Tijuana at its best.

On the way to the border, we noticed a side street that seemed to have quite a bit of activity. Following this, we discovered an area a few blocks away from the strip, away from where the majority of tourists spend their time. This area was very different. Centred around the beautiful Cathedral De Guadalupe, the buildings are a bit less grand, the stores are a bit smaller and carried wares other than only generic souvenirs. Best of all, there were street vendors. This is the Tijuana that I had wanted to see and was expecting. We saw no tourists here, but the area was bustling with people carrying shopping bags filled with food and other necessities.

We wandered around here for a while trying out the street food. I tried nance for the first time from a street vendor that didn't speak English. Even though this strange fruit tasted like rotting cheese, I bought a cup as I felt obligated when she gave me one of the nace berries after I pointed to it inquisitively. I ended up giving this cup of berries to a family sitting by the side of the street whose children were selling Chicklets. I also bought a cup of horchata from a street vendor with a cart, and handing over a 20 peso bill, I got back two Mexican peso coins and three American dimes as change, which shows how important tourists from the US are to the economy of this area. This is what we did for a while, trying interesting snacks, fruits, and drinks. We bought more than we could eat, so after a taste, I gave what I had left to beggars. This way, I get to try a variety of things, help the street vendors with my purchases, and help hungry beggars by giving them food. That's three birds with one stone.

As we left Tijuana at the end of dusk, I can't help but feel a sense of relief that we have the privilege of running away from the problems this area is facing. It was a very strange feeling to see how much of a difference there was from one side of the wall to the other. Although I used to see Tijuana as an empty city propped up by tourism, by the end of this visit, I saw that Tijuana clearly had a soul of its own, and it is still going strong even without that help of rich foreign tourists. Although Tijuana is known for it's sleaze, it still possesses that warm, personal soul of a comfortable, magical city even during the recent problems, as long as you know where to look.

Tijuana feels abandoned by its rich finicky neighbour to the north, and I hope in the future things will change. I hope that instead of avoiding the problem like how everyone is avoiding Tijuana, these recent problems promote closer cooperation between the US and Mexico to bring tourism back to Tijuana and the people who depend on them. In the meantime however, Tijuana will have to ride out some tough times. I thought the vendor at the last shop we stopped at summed up the situation perfectly. As we were leaving his store, he called to us "Come on! Buy something! Take your time! Just look around, I don't have anything else to do all day."

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Ocean Beach

I had some extra time today so I decided to Ocean Beach in San Francisco. I've been living in the Bay Area for a year and a half now, and in the city for about half a year. I've always wanted to see Ocean Beach, but just didn't really get an opportunity yet as I'm always busy with something during the weekends. Not today though. I had a Sunday to myself which I decided to use for a trip to Ocean Beach, the library, and some shopping.

It was quite chilly when I stepped outside, and windy. I thought to myself what bad luck with the weather. The day I decide to go to Ocean Beach, it is cold and windy. I hopped onto the 22 bus from 16th and Mission, just outside of my apartment, and transferred to the N line trams, which passed through Irving Street and passed very close to one my my favourite places to go for chicken wings - San Tung.

As we got closer to the beach, I saw the blue choppy waves in the distance. The surroundings were becoming less bustling as we passed through some residential districts. At the end of the line, I got off the tram, and crossing the street, arrived at the large grass covered dunes separating the beach from the rest of San Francisco.

I was greeted by an unusual sight. The wind was much stronger at the beach. Sand was being blown over the dunes and onto the road just behind it, creating a mini sandstorm reflecting the light from the headlights travelling through the dusty haze. As I walked through a gap in the dunes, my face felt like it was being sandblasted and I had to keep my eyes shut most of the time.

The beach was beautiful. It was a surprisingly wide and flat swath of sand littered with patches of pebbles, driftwood, and the occasional jellyfish as big as a dinner plate. It stretched up north about two kilometres from where I was standing to the Seal Rocks, with the white foamy sea furiously beating against its steep black cliffs, and the Cliff House perched precariously on the edge of a rocky outcropping. To the south, I can see rolling hills in the distance, green from the recent winter rains, but I can't see where the beach comes to an end. As I enjoyed the scenery, I played a game of leaning my back into the wind coming from the ocean to see how far back I can lean without falling over.

What really make this trip interesting and make me decide to write about it was the curious effects of the wind. I didn't stay long as it wasn't really that enjoyable due to the chill and the violent lashings from the stronger gusts, but the wind did produce an effect which I had not seen before. The wind was ripping the small foamy heads off of the cresting waves and scraping them along the beach. As some of the water was also being blown up the beach, there was a thin layer of water for the foam to slide on extending twenty to thirty metres from where the water actually ended, creating a second, false shore. Large ripples and waves of foam were being created and animated by the wind starting from water and ending up at and collecting at the false shore in large chunks. Once in a while, a strong gust of wind would rip apart such a collection, and pieces of the foam would race up the beach. As they were scraped along the sand, they would shrink in size until the popped out of existence. It was rather like watching a meteor storm that was happening in the sand below your feet rather than in the sky above your head.

This was the highlight of my day (yeah, I know, kind of a slow day) and I thought it was a great show which was surprisingly difficult to capture on camera. After a while however, I had to head back to get away from the wind and and cold to spend the rest of my day picking up fresh fruit from the local farmer's markets and books from the library.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 6 (Epilogue)

We woke up at the unearthly time of 5:30 in the morning. This was especially bad for me, considering that having stayed on Pacific time, it was like waking up at 4:30 in the morning for me, which is not that much later than when I go to bed on the weekends.

Standing outside with my pack waiting for Kevin to get the car from the back, I stared up at the cold, crisp night sky filled with glimmering stars. The ground was covered in a layer of snow glistening dimly from nearby streetlights and the pale glow from the stars and the tiny sliver of a new moon. On this first day of December, I can feel winter is starting to arrive. As I played with making my breath into clouds of different shapes and sizes, I reflected on how I will miss the feeling of winter playfully nipping at my face. I also reflected on my long weekend trip, and felt quite satisfied with the amount of adventuring I fit into four days. I met a variety of characters who shared with me their differing views on life, explored strange cities and had seen some of the most beautiful scenery in the world. I have also come away with a newfound respect for nature and a sense that nothing is permanent so we must learn to enjoy all the positives in our lives in the current moment rather than dwell on the negative and look forward to better times.

We chatted a bit more during the drive to the airport on the empty lonely roads of early morning. As the plane took off I was treated to an areal view of where the Canadian Rockies collides with the Canadian Prairies, forming a massive straight line of folds followed by jagged peaks for as far as the eye can see. The sunlight was just hitting the top of the snowy peaks as we flew across the border back into the US. There was an amazing view of Mount Rainier, which I was surprised to see from as far south as California. On the final approach, I was treated to a beautiful view of a thick layer of fog folding and rippling around the Californian coastline and the San Francisco Bay. This was a great, relaxing way to end a vacation. However, I felt a shudder of mundane familiarity by the thought that I would be in the office at work in less than an hour.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Banff and Calgary - Day 5 (Part 2)

After brunch, I continued my walk around. I crossed Louise Bridge into downtown and followed a pretty park trail that follows the Bow River. The downtown core was clearly visible just outside the park, but it was like a separate world inside, with joggers, families spending time together, tourists with large cameras, trees, bridges to portions of the park on islands, and signs warning of coyotes. I walked though Eau Claire Market, which was in the trendy Eau Claire district. There were some cool shops and whatnot, but nothing that's worth mentioning individually. After Eau Claire, I walked through the very impressive Calgary Chinese Cultural Centre. It is a large brick building where the centre portion rises into a dramatic pagoda. On both the inside and outside, the pagoda is very meticulously decorated with paintings and colourful wooden beams, just like any of the large historical pagodas you can see in China. This pagoda atrium connected to different offices and rooms on multiple floors, and there was even a theatre from which the sounds of a Southern Chinese opera was emanating and floating up to fill the entire atrium. After marvelling at this unexpectedly majestic building, I ducked into the downtown core of Calgary where I was determined to explore the +15 system, their vast system of sky bridges connecting the buildings of the downtown core.

Seeing a +15 sign, I walked up and pulled on the door handle. It was locked! It turns out that most of the office buildings that the +15 is connected to are locked during weekends and holidays, which is not the case for the underground PATH system back home in Toronto that I was so familiar with. For the next half an hour, I wandered around town pushing and tugging on any doors that I felt had even a remote chance at granting me access to the +15. I passed through bustling Chinatown shopping centres to post-apocalyptic scenes of streets surrounded by looming office towers abandoned for the weekend. I went though dozens of doors and up and down many stairs trying to find my way into the +15 system. It felt like I was inside a computer game where I had to find the one open door to get to the next level. Just as I was about to give up, I found a way into the +15 system through an entrance to an underground parking garage.

Although the +15 system is not as large and Toronto's PATH or Montreal's RÉSO, I found it much more modern looking and futuristic. This was enhanced by the glowing electronic signs at all the doors advising you of the direction you are travelling in. At nearly all of the junctions, there are large round electronic podiums with touch screens with which search for your destination and scroll and zoom around the map. If you type in where you want to go, these podiums will plot a path for you. The system was also filled with automatic doors that open for you when you approach and close right after you pass through to prevent too much airflow between the buildings. It felt very futuristic to be walking between the lobbies of the large buildings through glass corridors carrying you above the traffic and the occasional park below. From these corridors, you can see a line of similar sky bridges stretching down the street, some of them towering up to three floors in height when connecting busy shopping centres! I was also extremely impressed by how clean the corridors, and the city as a whole is, which earned Calgary the distinction of being named the cleanest city on Earth by Forbes Magazine.

After exploring some of the nooks and crannies of the +15 system, I made my way to the Devonian Gardens. The Devonian Gardens is a large indoor park on the upper floors of the buildings connecting the busy Calgary Eaton Centre and the Hudson's Bay Company. The lower floors contain a bustling multilevel shopping centre stretching over three continuous blocks. Unfortunately for me, the gardens were closed for renovations, so I peeked through the windows and saw lush vegetation, paths, and small streams. It must be great for the office workers there to have such a beautiful place of serenity within a few minutes from their cubicles. If I worked in the downtown area, I would probably eat lunch there at least once or twice a week.

Since I was not able to see the Devonian Gardens, I walked to the adjacent Stephen Avenue Mall, a wide pedestrian street in the middle of downtown Calgary surrounded by shops and restaurants. This looks like it would be a great place to spend a day when it is warm outside.

Eventually, I wandered into the Calgary Tower, and although I was not originally planning to go up it, I decided that it was still early and I didn't have anything better to go. This turned out to be a great decision, as I really enjoyed the view from the top. For one thing, you can get a bird's eye view of all the major attractions in the Calgary area from the top of the tower. I enjoyed an interesting section that protruded out from the tower where the walls and floors were all glass so that you felt like you were hovering in mid-air. However, what I found most interesting was that from the top of the tower, one can clearly see the vast, flat landscape of the Canadian prairies. From that vantage point, the City of Calgary, and especially the downtown core looks like it just springs up in a vast expanse of emptiness, much like a patch of mushrooms after a spring shower, which all of a sudden made me feel very far from the rest of society, as this city appeared to me as a lone metropolis in a sea of emptiness. It was a very humbling and unsettling feeling that nature can just easily take over this city without its citizens fighting together for their existence. I wondered what will happen to Calgary after the Alberta oil boom is over. The view to the west was just as gorgeous, as one can see in the distance a jagged impenetrable wall rising abruptly from the flat terrain forming the Canadian Rockies. The soft orange-yellow hue of the sun getting low in the sky made the entire scene appear extraordinarily beautiful, but excruciatingly lonely and unsettling at the same time. I sat there for a while just enjoying the scenery and reflecting on the thought that our existence is much more fragile and at the mercy of nature than I had previously thought.

After the tower, I took the tram south and walked to the Mission District from the Stampede Grounds. There were some good views of the city along this walk. The Mission is a trendy neighbourhood with a lot of small shops, restaurants and bars. I feel that I would be very happy to live here. I noticed that there were a lot of French speakers around here as well as the city in general. I was eventually surprised to find that Calgary is surprisingly diverse, and that over 12% of the city's residents has French ancestry, which was only the 7th largest group in terms of ethnic origin.

Although I was very attracted to some of the restaurants and bars in the area, I decided to continue on as it was starting to get dark. Following Kevin's prescribed route, I walked into a residential neighbourhood and started going up icy, slippery hills. I came across a mysteriously narrow path leading into some bushes which were reduced to bunches of thin sticks for the winter. I decided to follow it. After a short hike, I found myself at the crest of a hill. Looking down, I saw a network of trails and a sea of buildings below me, which was very pretty against the setting sun.

Returning to my original path, I walked to Hillcrest, where I was greeted by a spectacular view of the downtown core. Apparently others have also taken note of this view, as the area was filled with large mansions and estates, including an extraordinarily large castle-looking manor flying the Union Jack.

I eventually made my way back to Kevin's apartment through some treacherously slippery and steep hills and roads. After dinner and hanging out for a while, we went to sleep early as I had to wake up to catch a 7:30 flight to work the next morning, and Kevin had graciously agreed to drive me to the airport.