Friday, February 03, 2006

Crossing la linea

We ventured south of the border to Tijuana (pronounced tee-whana for those of you inclined to slip an extra "a" into the first syllable) for my first trip to Mexico.

First we strolled through the tourist district which starts at the border crossing.

The area includes a metal arch that is held in place by several dozen cables near the entrance to Plaza Santa Cecilia, a block-long pedestrian street with four gay bars and a gay restaurant.

Then we walked several miles around the central parts of the city before heading back to the border and waiting in line for more than an hour to re-enter the United States (see the bottom picture of the traffic jam on the Mexican side of the border crossing).

The city is huge with a guestimated population of 2 million. The center sits in a river valley surrounded by hills that are covered with densely packed neighborhoods stretching far beyond the visible ridges.

Most people we encountered spoke English, or at least enough to try to sell us something. While inside the tourist district we were constantly haggled by shopkeepers, but we were largely left alone in other areas.

Rex says that most Americans never venture beyond Avenida Revolución, the main tourist shopping street akin to Canal Street in New Orleans. That's unfortunate. If they did, they would quickly discover how similar Tijuana is to many cities north of the border, or at least the older ones east of the Mississippi River.

We visited a couple of shopping malls not far from city's federally subsidized cultural center (CECUT, pictured below) that were crawling with trendily dressed teens and middle- and upper-class adults.

In fact, I felt a striking sense of familiarity in Tijuana. Many things reminded me of New Orleans. It's a city that wears its problems on its sleeve. Poverty is almost always within view. The streets are a little dirty and most of the buildings (including City Hall) could use a good pressure washing.

It's also a city clearly with culture and personality - the kind of depth and complexity that's wanting in many places north of "la linea."

I can't wait to go back and explore some more.

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