A lot of people are interested in art installations, whether it's Desert X or Burning Man, they flock to see a stunningly refined house made of mirrors or a circle of perfectly arranged mirrored sticks, or some other contraption a well known urban artist planted down in the desert. Me? I like my conceptual art served up accidentally, a collision of form and function with political and social reality, with intended - and unintended - consequences.
In the Trump era, that means one thing, and one thing only: Walls.
“I want nothing to do with Mexico other than to build an impenetrable WALL
and stop them from ripping off U.S."
- Donald Trump
Walls are now fixed, for better or worse, in the American psyche thanks to our xenophobic, border fortification-obsessive president. In October, 2017, Customs and Border Protection unveiled eight new prototype walls near Otay Mesa, California, each up to 30 feet high, for President Trump to inspect. Six companies built these eight prototypes, with tactical teams evaluating their ability to withstand climbing over, digging under, or breaching through each particular type of wall.
Building the prototypes ran us taxpayers somewhere between $2.4 million and $4 million - for eight. Cost estimates for fulfilling the president's dreams of a giant medieval-looking barrier stretching along the nearly 2,000 mile U.S.-Mexican border ranges from $10 billion on up. And no, it doesn't appear the Mexicans will be paying for it if it ever materializes.
To be honest, while I was fascinated with the wall prototypes and their significance from early on, it was my wife who immediately associated them with large conceptual art pieces. We decided we had to see this art installation as it represented profound political and social forces at work. But it appeared in my research that they would be difficult to access from the U.S. side. That left only one alternative: Mexico.
I had tracked down the general area where you might be able to view the wall prototypes from the Mexican side of the border to an area east of the Otay Mesa border crossing. But when I was beginning to wonder if going there on our own was something we could pull off (not a good idea), a fantastic option appeared: Turista Libre.
Derrik Chin is the founder of Turista Libre, ostensibly a tour company, but really more of a cultural experience and celebration than anything. Turista Libre may be a tour company, but put away those visions of dull coach tours with a comatose guide reciting in a monotone from a tired script as you pass one forgettable landmark after another. The company, with Derrik often leading tours personally, offers a variety of small bus tours, as well as the option for private tours. With our desire to see the wall prototypes being the impetus for our tour, we decided to schedule a private tour for ourselves and two friends, instead of waiting for the next scheduled public tour. The cost was about $120 per person and included four hours of tour (which ended up more like seven) and transportation, and a lunch allowance.
With four of us going, all with different interests (of course), I knew it was going to be rough on our guide to try to accommodate us. Luckily, we had a pretty flexible group - and one of the best guides I've ever encountered - Derrik himself.
While I've led both fam tours for hospitality professionals and media, and tours for the public, and I greatly enjoy them (usually), I don't hold a candle to Derrik when it comes to being a guide. Not only has Derrik invested countless hours in learning just about every aspect and nuance of the city (he has lived in Tijuana for over a decade), but he is enthused, accommodating, and a great communicator. He had been working as an arts and entertainment writer for the San Diego Union-Tribune until the financial crisis of 2008 led the paper to cut its staff (newspapers, like public schools, seem to ditch the arts first whenever there's a problem with the budget). The paper's loss is our gain, and Derrik is the embodiment of dedication to his work, his guests, and the community. After spending a day with him, it is no wonder at all that Turista Libre garners five-star reviews consistently on TripAdvisor and Yelp.
Oh, and if visiting walls isn't quite your thing, definitely do not despair. Turista Libre offers a large selection of public tours, ranging from a Baja winery hop, Tijuana market hop, Ensenada craft brewery hop, "Mariscos & Margaritas" Tijuana-to-Ensenada progressive meal, Tijuana Toros baseball south of the border, Tijuana waterpark trek, the annual Tijuana Fair, to a Tijuana craft brewery hop, a Tecate cave paintings and bakery trek, and even a Tijuana zombie taco crawl. And if Mexico City is your destination, then check out Turista Libre's offerings there. Are there more destinations planned for us when we Turista Libre addicts have taken all the Mexican tours? All I can say is Derrik is working on his Portuguese.
On the day of our private tour, we headed out confidently with our friend from Chula Vista driving. We're set to meet Derrik at the 7-11 on the American side of the Otay Mesa border crossing. Who knew there were two 7-11s in the neighborhood?
Luckily, they're both within a two-to-three minute drive from each other. We quickly found paid parking (the only kind you'll find there other than illegal), and met up with Derrik. We made our introductions, and headed south for the border.
While Tijuana wasn't nearly as hot as the desert, it was a warm, humid day. We filled out our entry paperwork (the first time it was required of me in more than half a dozen recent border crossings), and the friendly clerk sent us on our way, past the heavily armed guards into Tijuana, where the first thing we encountered was a street vendor selling tejuino.
Had I been on my own, I likely would have passed the vendor by, not wanting to chance the beverage after, well, other decisions to indulge in a refreshing beverage served from street vendors which had resulted in less than desirable, shall we say, after effects? (A delicious glass of cherry juice in Istanbul comes to mind.....) But Derrik not only filled us in on tejuino, a fermented corn drink with a long history (while its origins are uncertain, it's likely that the drink dates to pre-Columbian times, and was once known by the Nahua people as the "drink of the gods."), but ordered us some.
While just the mis-associated imagery of fermented corn put off half of our party, the tejuino, topped with a lime sorbet, was delicious, refreshing, and more thirst-quenching than water. If there was a tejuino stand out here in the desert, I'd be a regular. I love the stuff.
While my wife and I were greatly enjoying our tejuino drinks, Derrik retrieved his Jeep, and we headed east, toward the bustling industrial area where the commercial truck border crossing is located. It is just east of here where you can see Trump's planned dystopian future for the border between the U.S. and Mexico.
It soon became apparent why Derrik had chosen a Jeep for his smaller private tours. To get to the location where we could view the border wall prototypes, we needed to drive a rather lumpy and dusty dirt road, filled with tractor-trailer trucks and the occasional motorcycle. At times it became difficult to see through the dust ahead, but soon we passed a border marker - one of 276 boundary monuments erected by the International Boundary Commission after the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty (1848), and the Gadsden Treaty (1853). Our destination was just ahead.
The ash-white obelisk stood as a mute reminder of a simpler, more relaxed time along the border when there were no walls, no fence, and no perceived need for them either. Families lived on either side and people crossed informally - no passports, no visas, no documentation at all - and no Border Patrol or ICE.
Now we live in an age where ICE raids everything from employers to Greyhound buses. Businesses from shopping malls to Thomson Reuters profit from providing data to ICE to help them track down undocumented immigrants, U.S. military veterans get deported instead of receiving citizenship for their service to our country, legal immigrants with green cards get deported, and the administration is ramping up efforts to strip citizenship from some naturalized citizens, all the while pushing a no tolerance policy toward immigrants entering the country illegally, and even violating international law and humanitarian norms for refugees seeking asylum. Children are thoughtlessly ripped from their parents and lost - the government only reuniting them because the court orders it. Not our finest hour.
We live in the era of children crying for their parents while Border Patrol agents mock them as a little symphony. American compassion has seemingly morphed into American callousness and indifference. Officially, anyway, with support of at least a third of Americans. It is both disheartening and unnerving. Not the direction I'd like to see for the world our grandchildren will inherit.
If anyone thinks our government would stop at persecuting immigrants, I am afraid they are sadly deceived. This is simply a starting point. Nobody should support treating immigrants and refugees inhumanely, even if only out of self interest, to prevent a time when it is our turn to be demonized and treated in the same manner. Some say it would never happen. History notes someone is always wrong about these things. Better to be cautious than regretful.
We reached the spot outside a junkyard where we could spy the wall prototypes from our side. Derrik backed his Jeep close to the wall so we could scramble up to its hardtop roof for an excellent view over the existing metal panel wall.
There they stood - eight highly utilitarian (and vastly expensive) sections of wall, each brutal and austere, designed to make distant red state residents, most of whom who have never been to the border to see the fact that much of it already has a newer kind of wall in place, salivate at the thought of keeping all the rapists and criminals and MS-13 gang members out of their placid existence hundreds of miles away.
For my wife and I, being able to see this vision of the future put forth by Trump and endorsed enthusiastically by so many Americans, was worth the price of our tour alone. The stark monuments to xenophobia and fear rose up from the desert in competition with each other to be the most unassailable and impassable barriers possible. Aesthetically, they were all ugly as sin, made uglier by their purpose. Not that I'd wouldn't mind keeping out the cartels and gangs, but we do already have walls in place in many locations, along with a large Border Patrol presence, blimps, helicopters, video cameras, heat sensors, and more. It's not like we haven't already sold out our freedom with the 100 square mile Border Exclusion Zone where the Constitution no longer is the law of the land. Fear of brown people has allowed the degradation of constitutional protections for all of us. It's a form of mass hysteria exploited by those in power, and no doubt will come back to bite us all in the ass at some point in the future. I'm not paranoid, just concerned.
As a conceptual art installation, these prototypes are truly incredible. They invite discussion and debate and encompass far more than concrete and steel. They relate not only to human immigration, but also to the migration of wildlife, birds, and insects, and will likely, if built, create a serious impact on these migrations, further weakening species that traditionally engage in a north-south migration across the continent. They impact the landscape, not just visually, but also through their interaction with natural elements such as water flow. While much of the Southwest may be dry, when it's not, it's often ferociously not. Walls are not compatible with flash flooding. Something's gotta give.
And, they relate not just to human immigrants, but to us - on a number of levels. First, of course, financially. Billions will be needed to construct these walls that are costing about a million dollars per 50-60 feet when built on level, easily accessible ground. Then, they will be constructed across private lands with land seized by the government for construction and access. They stand to wreak havoc on some Native American peoples such as the Tohono O'odham whose traditional homelands were established long before any artificial border, and whose people live on both sides of any wall that would be built. Finally, there is the simple fact that walls keep us in as well as others out. The U.S. recently began implementing facial recognition in some border crossings - not just on the way into the country, but also on the way out. We didn't even need a passport not so long ago. Now they're going to cross reference our faces through a database.
An interesting challenge to discussing this project is the stigma attached to it by those on the liberal side of the spectrum. One friend who accompanied us on the tour had to explain to virtually everyone that we weren't Trump supporters, honest. It was as if anyone interested in the wall would be assumed by liberals to support it. Evidently good liberals aren't supposed to be curious about the wall, should never actually investigate anything that isn't dogmatically in line with their own political beliefs, and are likely to be roundly condemned and attacked by their own if they do.
I fail to see where that kind of repression of discussion yields anything beneficial, but the repression and intolerance is evidently very real. I always prefer actually learning about things rather than condemning them out of hand. And evidently I'm not alone, as Turista Libre does run public tours to this location while providing a solid look into the history and reality of the border in their 'Against the Wall' border proximity pilgrimages. During these times of reality that seems more satire than, well... real, I think Turista Libre is providing a much needed option for more of us to see this version of history-in-the-making for ourselves, making the Trump wall less of an abstraction, and more of a potential reality we need to see and face.
As if sensing the ominous future possibilities they represent, the scene near the wall prototypes was nigh on apocalyptic. Color seemed to be sucked out of the scene, and everything around us was covered with a fine white dust. A dog wandered out, then retreated to shade. A woman peered out at us, and a motorcycle approached us, then turned around and left. Truck pieces were piled here and there, and to the west, dust rose as trucks made their way to the border crossing. A decrepit pickup was left abandoned alongside the existing wall, shrouded in dust.
Will this wall ever be built? It's hard to say. Trump is invested in it to the point of playing politics with much needed infrastructure renovations for New York City's commuter transportation system in an attempt to push New York's Democrats to provide funding for the wall. Trump's willingness to put the city that provides 10 percent of the country's Gross Domestic Product at stake in order to extort support for the wall is playing chicken with economic disaster for millions of Americans. It plays well with his base, even though they're going to suffer in Florida, Texas, the Dakotas, and the South, if New York's transportation infrastructure fails.
As one person pointed out, with Trump so heavily invested, it's as if the wall is a monument to his ego. I'm not sure that ego needs another monument.
But even in this bleak environment near the wall prototypes, humanity was making a stand. The existing border wall was serving as the canvas for art, reminding us that when someone builds a wall, there are those who will rebel, fight back, and remind us we're all human, even when many of us seem to forget.
While I was fascinated with the surreal nature of the environment created by the existing wall combined with the border wall prototypes, it was time to move on and see more of Tijuana. This had been my one "must see" stop on the tour. Now, it was time to explore other aspects of Tijuana, and to let our friends have their say in where we would go.
I have a long family history with this part of Mexico. Somewhere in my collection of family photos is a black and white picture of my grandmother as a young woman, sitting on the curb in Rosarito, waiting for my grandfather to emerge from the bar. They would cross the border during Prohibition to find alcohol, a pilgrimage many younger college students replicate to this day, heading for Senor Frog's for enough cheap tequila to puke.
I grew up coming to Tijuana, mostly, as I remember, to take in the horse races at the Agua Caliente racetrack and for my mom to buy a handmade leather purse. Horse racing there ended in the nineties, though greyhound racing continues. The track that opened in 1929 and once hosted Phar Lap, Sea Biscuit, and Round Table, has seen its heyday come and go, but persists, waiting patiently for horse racing to regain its popularity with the American public.
I have a jumble of memories from our trips to Tijuana - of watching a waiter at Agua Caliente pickpocket a customer only to be caught red-handed; being "forced" to drink glass bottles of Coca-Cola because we couldn't trust the water; a dusty, noisy, weaving, and exciting ride from the border and back in a rickety Tijuana taxi, and my mother negotiating with shopkeepers over the prices of hand-tooled leather purses as sturdy as any saddle, and just about as beautiful. I recall always enjoying our trips to Tijuana - no passports required.
One of our party, a perpetually driven, hardworking, over-achieving and brilliant young man, showed an interest in learning about any options for relaxation, including massage. Derrik first made certain he wasn't referring to the kind of massage that provides a happy ending for an extra ten bucks, and then said he would take us to a place most tourists don't know about that's great for this kind of thing.
Derrik then introduced us to a spot locals seem to enjoy, Valparaiso Aguas Termales, a historic day spa that was one of the city's first attractions, along with the racetrack and casino (you can see the minaret from the original casino - now a high school - from the spa). The spa is much like other historic hot springs I've visited in Greece. It's in perpetual renovation, but beautiful and welcoming in its own right. Entry to the spa leads you past small murals representing the area's history. There are private rooms with their own natural hot baths where you can enjoy a massage and parboil yourself to your heart's content. There's a sauna, Jacuzzi, large swimming pool, communal hot baths (cheaper than the private bath options), a cold pool, yoga, and more. It's quite affordable compared to typical U.S. prices, and provides the opportunity to relax like, and with, the locals.
Had we been prepared, it would have been easy to stop for an hour or six here. The vibe was decidedly laid back, family-oriented, and very appealing. Even the local dogs wanted in on a bit of the spa's relaxation.
Our other co-turista had expressed an interest in shopping, so we piled back into the Jeep and Derrik drove us to Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana's oldest and largest permanent open-air market. Here, dozens of stalls offer locally made cheeses, pastries, spices, peppers, produce, pinatas, and most importantly - fantastic Mexican coffees at El Hidalgo Expendio, coming from Veracruz, Chiapas, Oaxaca, and elsewhere. I loved everything I tried, and bought a kilo of their coffee beans from Oaxaca to take home. The best souvenirs, I think, aren't little trinkets you'll either put out to gather dust, or never even put out, but rather things you'll use, or eat and drink. It's been delightful starting my days since our tour with a cup of delicious Oaxacan coffee, and it brings back memories of our tour too. Just the aroma of the brewing coffee brings a smile.
I learned that it was easy to begin to run behind while enjoying ourselves. Our tour was scheduled to deliver us back to the Otay Mesa border crossing (Turista Libre operates its public tours from the San Ysidro crossing, but for private tours they can accommodate other arrangements), by 3 p.m. While I could have easily stayed at Mercado Hidalgo for another hour or two, it was all too quickly time to head out.
One of our party had an interesting idea - she wanted to see a "nicer" neighborhood in Tijuana. Derrik, ever accommodating and able to roll with whatever request gets thrown his way, took us up into the hills where the neighborhoods resemble their tony equivalents north of the border, for roughly a third of the cost.
Tijuana covers the spectrum from the brush along the river bed where deported Central American immigrants eke out their tenuous existence, to hillsides covered with ramshackle buildings, to stunningly opulent mansions with hilltop views over the city. Derrik told us about living in Chapultepec, where once drug lords lived. The period of violence nearly made the neighborhood unlivable, and for a time, rents became affordable for some of the nicer homes in the city as the reputation lingered long after the danger had subsided.
There are parts of Tijuana that remind me of Brooklyn, with some degree of gentrification taking place - new vegan restaurants popping up with stylish neighborhood bars and other upscale eateries and boutique hotels. There is a vibrant culinary scene happening here, with everything from some of the best Chinese food on the planet, to Telefonica Gastro Park - our destination for lunch.
Here at Telefonica you get the best of all possible worlds - a broad, ever-changing selection of microbrews ranging from lagers to IPAs and stouts, along with food booths and food trucks with a dizzying number of tantalizing options for your taste buds ranging from the housemade sausage and bacon, or sausage and pulled pork sandwiches of Humo, tacos (of course) at La Carmelita, Greek food, the original Caesar's Salad, charcuterie plates with locally made cheeses and smoked meats, ramens from Don Ramen, and locally sourced seafood from Otto's Grill. Many of the food trucks are run by local chefs who are clearly using the best available ingredients, fresh and locally sourced, with affordably delicious results.
Looking for another souvenir, I took home a round of locally produced cheese with a mild nutty flavor, from Quesos El Popo. The proprietor asked me where I was from and when I told him "Joshua Tree," I found he had visited as a roadie for a Mexican band performing at our fantastic Joshua Tree Music Festival. "It's a small world," he said, smiling.
Telefonica Gastro Park is acclaimed by foodies and food truck aficionados far and wide, and is worth repeat pilgrimages. The billboard overlooking the gastro park features an image of Trump with a taco and the theme, "Food has no walls." Indeed, it is not unusual to see an homage to the late Anthony Bourdain on the Facebook pages of these establishments, thanking him for bringing people together through his love of food and life, sadly ended earlier this year.
By the time lunch had ended, our time to be at the border had passed. We felt concerned we were running late, but Derrik put us at ease. We only had one more stop on this decidedly odd tour of the city - their cat cafe! Derrik had mentioned it, and we all decided we needed to stop. After all, how often does one get to visit a bonafide cat cafe, let alone one in Tijuana?
Derrik, ever the cheerful and indefatigable tour leader, really went the extra mile here. We arrived at Bastet Cat Cafe to find it more crowded than he said he'd ever seen it before. The result was that it took a very long time for our drinks to be made, and we had to wait to visit with the kitties because only a certain number of people were allowed in the cat area at a time. The day was beginning to wear on some of our party, but cat therapy has its benefits.
While waiting, I met a delightful young couple who confessed that while they had five cats at home, they felt obliged to come here. It was their first visit also. They were sweet, and were enjoying a piece of cake with a cat laying across their table when we had to leave. One of our party proclaimed her love for an adorable kitten with mostly white fur, but while we urged her to adopt the kitty, she eventually thought better of it. Our kitty will not permit us to return home with additional felines in tow. I do not wish to be subjected to the mayhem that would ensue. A Mojave Sand Leopard is not to be trifled with!
After a quick stop in the Sanborn department store nearby (an interesting and more lively twist to the department store model found north of the border - Sears and J.C. Penney might learn something here), we headed out for a quick cruise down La Revu, Avenida Revolucion, a tourist hotspot with "zebras" and hookers at one end. It's also where you can find trendy boutique hotels, the original Caesar's restaurant, home of the authentic Caesar Salad, every kind of shopping from tawdry to tony, breweries, nightlife, and some fascinating street art. Unfortunately, passing 5 p.m., two hours after our tour was scheduled to conclude, it was time to head back to the Otay Mesa border crossing to let Derrik have his life back.
Though this seems like a fairly random collection of things to see and do, it served very well as an introductory overview to Tijuana, providing many suggestions for new places to visit, along with a few destinations that I can't wait to return to again - the sooner the better. Heck, I might even want to organize a private tour for folks to join and maybe eat, drink, and shop our way through Tijuana. But don't wait for me - check out Turista Libre for yourself and join Derrik or one of his handpicked top-notch associates for a day in and around Tijuana. I found it well worth the time and money invested and would join Derrik for any of his other tours whenever possible. I honestly can't say enough good things about him and the day he gave us in Tijuana.
Interestingly enough, while I thought I would be tired at the end of it all, as he dropped us off at the Otay Mesa border crossing, I felt energized - ready to add on an evening tour for another four hours of fun exploring the city. I strongly recommend exploring Tijuana and Baja California with Turista Libre, and I now personally understand why they consistently receive those five star ratings from their customers. They earn them.
(I did not receive any compensation or discount from Turista Libre for my story or endorsement - it's completely based on my wholehearted enjoyment of a splendid day spent in a fascinating city with one of the best guides you could ever hope to find.)
As we walked back across the border, I thought more about our day. So many Americans have perceptions of Mexico and the border that aren't based on experience, and as a result, they're not at all balanced or accurate. People in Wisconsin or Iowa who haven't traveled don't really understand the reality of the border, and as a result, the fear from the information they're fed about it makes a giant wall sound like a good idea. I mean, all those rapists and drug dealers and gangs and all - they're scary. They're meant to be. Me, I'm more afraid of the K Street lobbyists and the bought-and-paid-for members of Congress who do their bidding at our expense, along with the abundance of home-grown criminals who vastly outnumber those from the immigrant community.
Our day in Tijuana seemed a lot like a day in any big, increasingly cosmopolitan city, with a lot of youthful energy. The residents I spoke with on our tour were hopeful for their new president-elect Andrés Manuel López Obrador. I would rate them as cautiously optimistic, knowing the obstacles he faces. He has already reached out to President Trump with a letter that addresses trade and immigration.
"Regarding migration, I must comment that the most essential purpose of my government will be to ensure that Mexicans do not have to migrate because of poverty or violence. We will try to make emigration optional and not necessary. We will strive to ensure that people find work and wellbeing in their places of origin, where their families, their customs, and their cultures are. To achieve this fundamental purpose, the incoming government will carry out the greatest effort ever undertaken in Mexico."
- Andrés Manuel López Obrador
Whether AMLO is fully successful or not has much to do with the support of the people of Mexico themselves, and the power brokers that are at work in the country (legally and illegally). There are those who profit from sorrow and crime and they will likely fight tooth and nail to ensure the country's status quo remains. But there are those who see what their country can be, and they want a better future for it, themselves, their children, and of course, their cats.
I feel that the hope for our mutually better futures doesn't lie in bigger walls and separation, but rather in mutual appreciation of our neighbors, respect, understanding, and experiences. What a shame we can't take the same amount of money spent on the border wall prototypes and send those fearful wall-loving Americans from Iowa, Wisconsin, Alabama, and Kentucky, Florida, and Texas, on one of Derrik's tours. As usual, travel - direct experience with another people and culture, even if only for the day - breaks down barriers and builds bridges. We need more of these connections, and fewer walls.
Thank you Derrik, Turista Libre, and all the welcoming, friendly people (and cats) of Tijuana!
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