Last month I travelled to beautiful Palm Desert, California to visit my friend Yuri.
“If there’s anything you want to do or see while you’re down here let me know and we’ll drive there,” he said. I pulled up Google Earth to check out what was nearby and my eyes were drawn to a big yellow line about two hours south of Palm Desert. “I want to go to Mexico!” I said. And we did!
I’ve always wanted to go there but I’ve never had the cash for one of those beach vacations or a fabulous tour of Mexico City or the Mayan Riviera.
So, I pretty much did the cheapest and easiest Mexican trip possible: Mexicali.
The closest border crossing was located at Calexico, California which is adjacent to Mexicali, Baja California, Mexico. I read about Mexicali on Wikipedia, where I learned it’s the northernmost city in Latin America.
We had no idea where the border crossing to Mexico was – we just followed the crowds which led us to the imposing United States Border Inspection edifice. A steady line of people dispersed out from a door on the right and a small trickle casually walked into a door on the left.
“I think that might be the door to Mexico!” I said. We walked through the building out to a giant fence with a row of full-height turnstiles. I go through the turnstile and *clunk* we’re in Mexico! I didn’t see any flags or “Bienvenido a Mexico” signs but the sturdiness of the gate and the giant line across the ground suggested that we had crossed a border.
Everywhere around there were small, noisy shops but absolutely no customs station!
“We just freakin’ walked into another country,” I exclaimed. “No border guards or customs or anything! That’s freakin’ sketchy!” Yuri, however didn’t seem too fazed. “I told you it was this way,” he said. “Yeah, but I wasn’t listening!”
I looked around and noticed a single-file line which stretched about two blocks.
“Oh, God. I hope that’s not the lineup back into the U.S.,” said Yuri. “I think it might be.”
I approached two policemen who were wearing uniforms reminiscent of a mall security guard with faux-polo shirts, old-school portable radio thing, and dollar store sunglasses.
“Excuse me, do you know if that’s the line back into Calexico?” I asked, pointing to the queue. “Sorry,” one cop said with a smile. “I don’t speak English!” He then turned to his partner, asked. something Spanish turned back to me and said “Sorry, I do not know!”
Silly ignorant me! I just walked in there and assumed everyone would know English. I don’t know a damn word of Spanish so the trip would be limited as I love chatting with people.
There were a lot of pharmacies, little restaurants, bars and other random shops up and down the main streets which seemed geared to pedestrian shoppers. It’s a bustling downtown with a lot of character. A stark contrast from many of the “dead” downtowns I saw during my trip to California. The roads and sidewalks are in very poor form with garbage scattered everywhere.
“Okay, we’re here in Mexico now what do you want do?” asked Yuri. “I want to drink a margarita!” I exclaim. It’s always been my dream to drink a brightly coloured drink in Mexico. So we wandered the streets looking for a bar – I didn’t care which one. I just wanted a place with a bathroom.
So we wandered down Av. Reforma which was lined with brightly painted bars. Yuri asked me to pick one so I just opened the first door to my left which happened to be a place called Jala La Jarra which Yuri thought might be a strip-bar by night.
The place was long and narrow with a bar on one side and a partition wall on the other. Mexican pop music was blaring at an ear blistering volume and the television was playing some C-list American movie from the ‘90s complete with Spanish subtitles.
“Hola!” said the young and friendly waitress. “¿Qué le gusta beber?” Yuri ordered a Dos Equis (XX) beer and I pointed to an illuminated poster of some super fruity bacardi drink on the wall and said “That!” The waitress went from one end of the bar to another in a fruitless scramble to locate the fruity ingredients.
The poor girl seemed completely lost so I smiled and let her know that a beer would suffice. She was pleased with this choice.
After two beers and a quick bathroom break we decided it was time for lunch!
Prior to my trip I read a fun blog about Mexicali written by an American woman who lives there. I asked her where to go and she suggested some of the Chinese restaurants. I think we went to this place:
The staff were Mexican and the owners Chinese. It looked pretty much like a Chinese restaurant here in Burnaby with its tear-away calendar printed in Guangzhou, faded prints of Chinese landscapes, and checkered vinyl table cloths. I felt at home.
When the bubbly server came to my table and I smiled like an idiot and pointed to an item that said “taco” and said “Uno Coca Cola por favor!”
The Coke is amazing down there. It’s made from cane sugar so it’s extra yummy with a very pleasant aftertaste. The tacos, however, were disgusting. The meat was gristly and mysterious and the cheese was bland and mysterious. The shell and vegetables were okay. I managed to choke down two of them.
On her blog MaryAnn mentions that many of the restaurant owners speak Chinese. I took Chinese as a teenager and I’ve lived in Vancouver for umpteen years so I am able to say some very basic phrases here and there.
When it came time to pay I chatted a bit with the owners who seemed surprised and delighted that some strange white guy could say a few words of Chinese. I just asked “how much”, exchanged pleasantries and told them that I was visiting from Vancouver, Canada. So yeah, that was pretty cool!
At this point I was ready to leave Mexico. I had been there, seen it, had a beer and a taco and was ready to go back to Calexico where Yuri’s car was parked in a dusty parking lot.
As I suspected, the huge lineup was indeed for the border. Fortunately, it seemed to be a “walking line” that snaked rather quickly through this strange outdoor mini-mall thing. As we came closer to the American customs building Yuri points to a table across from us.
“That’s Mexican customs right there,” he said.
Seated at one of those folding card table things were a man and a woman no more than 25 years of age. They each had a cell phone and unlike me the guy had a DSLR camera. They were wearing glasses and a T-shirt with their departmental logo on it. They were chatting with each other, laughing and checking their text messages. They really weren’t doing much as far as I could see.
When I got to U.S. customs I quickly learned why the line was so quick – they just rush everyone through! While I laud expediency I am shocked at how different it is from entering the U.S. from Canada where they really put you through the grinder with a long list of questions. “Where are you going?” asks the U.S. customs dude, “Palm Desert.” I reply. “Have a nice trip!” he says. And that’s it! I’m in!
I’m glad that I got to see Mexico. When people ask me “Where have you been?” I am forced to say, usually in an apologetic tone, “Just Canada and the States.” Now I have some “real” international experience! I’m a jet-setting, cosmopolitan world traveller! W00t!
Oh yeah, I also bought a baby poncho for my friend Marie! Here’s Khan trying it on: