I didn’t know much about Mexico before crossing the border. Tequila, sombrero, large moustache. And fiestas. I had no Mexican Lonely Planet or any other travel guide, I forgot all the Spanish I learnt in high school, I knew nobody in Mexico; I just had in mind I wanted to reach the southernmost point of Baja California (is there even a city down there?).
But still. I walked through the door. A totally mysterious world was waiting for me.
Two armed Mexican soldiers were standing there next to the door. I passed them. I held my passport in my right hand, my head turning left and right, all happy, looking to get my immigration stamp. I continued walking, following the Mexican crowd going in the same direction as me. No other tourists around me, only Mexicans. Tourists cross the border by car, duh. I could see on my left side a gigantic line of Mexican men and women trying to get across the border from the other side, towards the U.S., across the most wanted border of the world, the border of the American Dream, the one from which I was trying to get away. They seemed to have stood there for hours already, all exhausted and irritated. Vendors selling food and cold drinks shouted while walking up and down that queue. It was a hot day. There was a lot of noise. It already felt Mexico.
I walked up a pedestrian bridge, and from there I could see that the road was directly leading to a group of yellow taxis waiting to take people to the city center. “I don’t want a taxi. I want to walk to the city center,” I said to myself (note: it was a 15-minute walk, I checked that the night before). And immediately after that, a wiser inner voice said to me: “Hey! If you can hail a taxi, it means that you’re already in Mexico, right? So where’s your passport stamp?”
Oops. Was I already in Mexico? Like illegally? Was that so simple to cross the Mexican border?
So I went back on my steps, said “hi” again to the 2-kilometer-long queue, and arrived next to my first two Mexican guards. And there I saw there was actually an immigration office hidden on the right side. I went in, asked them about the stamp situation with my “¿Como estás? ¡Muy bien! ¿Y tú?” Spanish (they spoke no English). Some minutes later they gave me my precious stamp and a big smile.
Then the most amazing thing happened. The immigration officer took out a piece of paper, and spent 20 minutes – 20 minutes! – explaining to me the best spots I need to see in Baja California. I nodded more than I understood, but, hey, whatever, he wrote all the things down. He even called a friend of his to ask if he could think of other must-see spots! This was my first contact with a Mexican guy in Mexico. It was exceptional.
And that handwritten list of 10 towns was going to be my guide for the following 3 weeks.
Now my heart light-weighted, I was ready to go explore the world. But very soon I felt a little bit “on my own”, like lonely and scared “on my own”: the friendly police officer wasn’t with me anymore, and I was now going to talk to real Mexicans. And the only image I had in mind was what people always told me about Dangerous Mexico: crimes and drug dealers, sex, violence, big unemotional Mexican millionaires with their sunglasses and their shirts open wide enough to show half of their hairy chest, accompanied by two guards each holding two shiny golden AK47s, walking slowly away from their helicopter in the background. More seriously, I had this map from the French government in my mind.
Every part of Mexico has it’s own color of dangerousness, going from green to red. And the place I was going to, Tijuana, is orange. But what’s orange?
What’s orange? Anyway, I was suspicious about everyone around me. On my way to the city center, I avoided every Mexican seller who was trying to sell me some sombreros or some tequila shot glasses. Will he try to rob me? No, maybe kill me?? And then rip my organs off and sell them???
I passed the bridge over Rio Tijuana. The river that joins, the river that divides. The no-man’s land. Now that’s a scary moment. First of all I was on my own on that damn bridge. Where did that entire Mexican crowd go? How did they disappear so quickly? Strange. Looking down the bridge, I could see bums scattered all over the place on the Mexican “dirty” side of the river.
And as I walked over the bridge, two of them were shouting at me, telling me to come down with gestures with their hands. Oh my god. What if more of them are waiting for me at the other side of the bridge?
I rushed my way to la Avenida Revolución, the main street of Tijuana, without any bums on the way, phew. Quite the contrary actually, once I arrived near the Avenida, it was full of Americans. So then I felt safe, but then the fact it was full of tourists bothered me too. Tourists drinking Coronas with a slice of lemon inside it, tourists eating authentic Italian pizza, tourists taking photos of them posing in front of a burro (a donkey) painted as a zebra next to a guy with a large moustache and a sombrero. Yeah. What the fuck. That was my reaction too. That’s not the Mexico I wanted to see.
So I walked to the street two blocks parallel from Revolución. And there were zero tourists there. And I didn’t feel scared. There was nothing special. Small houses, small stores, normal people. But it made me happy. I bought a bottle of water in an Oxxo (the Mexican’s omnipresent store), I bought a Mexican SIM card. Little things one might say, but I was proud of myself “surviving my way” in Mysterious and Dangerous Mexico. And got really IMPRESSED by how the people were patient and willing to do the maximum to help me. Really. Extremely good first impression about the Mexicans.
The thing is, this first impression only got better over time. Today, four months later, I just fell in love with them.