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."