A DUBIOUS BEGINNING: TIJUANA (Travel-Log album) – J.J. Cale
Oh Tijuana. Blessed Tijuana. What can one say about Tijuana? It’s a sincere question, for I really haven’t a clue in hell about anything to do with Tijuana. This is because I drove through Tijuana faster than a rabid bat out of that very same hell. And THIS is why I wound up entering the dry, desert plains of Mexico illegally. Mas o menos.
And for THIS, I blame the media fueled society we are forced to live in and the fear it so casually induces. Every film, every news clip, every urban legend or childhood bedtime story has always warned of the lethal dangers of notorious TJ.
Drive straight through, never look back, they all plead, like it’s the epicenter of some war torn country out of an Angelina Jolie film where children’s severed limbs are being blown through the air like confetti and everywhere you turn, catastrophe is waiting with a loaded M4.
But my intrinsic and relentless human desire to conform, and the fact that I was narrowly allowed entry to begin with had me believing every word, flooring the gas pedal like it was the end of days.
Border gone bad…
When I arrived at the border, I was already wired over the notion that Van Morrison had not so long ago been an accomplice to stashing a multitude of government friendly marijuana product, agonizing that any potential lingering specimen might do me in. Have me taken to the Greybar hotel. Kicked to the clink.
It never occurred to me that some knuckle head at the insurance company I had initially registered Van Morrison at might be the reason we wouldn’t make the other side.
“Your VIN does not match.”
I was hardly listening to the accented words being spoken beside me. My attention was undividedly latched on the uniformed man holding the leash of a very sinister looking German Shepherd, both bound for my vehicle.
“These numbers. They don’t match.”
“Does that matter?”
I didn’t even know who I was speaking to. The dog was inside my Van.
“Come here, please.”
I turned to see a young man, perhaps my age, holding my papers with a look of stern confusion. I followed him to the driver’s door. He opened it and showed me a panel on the frame that my eyes had never before noted. He placed the papers next to the panel.
“See? No match.”
I saw. The hairs on the back of my neck had raised and I suddenly felt cold despite the sweat that was now building on my brow.
“I don’t understand.”
“Yeah, no, I get that. I don’t understand how.”
He pushed the papers closer to the panel and jabbed his finger at the conflicting digits.
“I get it, I get it. They don’t match.”
I knew what this meant. Van Morrison’s Vehicle Identification Number was as good as his fingerprint. If his number didn’t match, he more or less didn’t exist. And how was a ghost van supposed to be let into a whole other country? It wasn’t. And there was nothing to be done.
How to get out of any crisis…
I started mild at first, didn’t want to come on too strong. Less is always more. When the officer turned to close Van’s door, I quickly plucked a single nose hair from my right nostril.
Sweet Mary Mother of Jesus Christ! My lower lids immediately brimmed with tears.
Before he could speak, I looked the officer straight in the eye as a single drop made its tender way down my cheek.
I allowed my lower lip to tremble, as if fighting the urge.
“I… I just…”
I dropped my gaze for a second, hoping his would follow in the off chance that he might have not yet noticed I was braless. At this point, nothing could hurt.
“I thought I had done everything right.” Now the tears were flowing. I sniffed once, lifting and then dropping my shoulders in defeat. “I just don’t understand.”
I hugged my arms around my waist, timidly, waiting.
Silence. Silence was promising.
He handed me my papers.
“This time only.” His words were firm but gentle. “Never again. Si?”
“I can go through?”
“Si. Now only.”
“Si!” I threw out my hands to hug him, but quickly thought better of it. “Si, si, si! Absolutely! Muchas gracias señor! Te amo mucho!”
He stared at me blankly but I could feel a smile hiding from within.
I hurdled myself into Van Morrison, and pedal to the metal, we fled the scene, never stopping, never looking back.
Until we reached Ensenada. Over three hours later.
Emotionally drained and all over exhausted, I pulled off at the first RV site I could see from the highway. I was led by a small man named Julio to a plot overlooking the ocean.
I parked Van Morrison and took a long look around. There weren’t many trailers on the site, and those that were, were clearly of the more permanent nature, keeping very much to themselves. I was alone. The wind was gradually building as night crept over the caps of rolling waves. For one of the last times in what would be a very long while, I wrapped a sweater around my shoulders and headed down the rocky path toward the sea.
Nestled peacefully on a large rock, I watched the ends of waves wash over my feet; the musty smell of salt mixing divinely with the realization of my ultimate success.
I was in Mexico.
I sat back on the rock. Silence. Nothing but the crashing waves and the soaring gulls to sound the bells of my triumph. The wind picked up, and as I went to wrap my sweater tighter, my passport poked from my back pocket. I froze. It was in this moment I realized that my passport had never left the confines of that pocket.
Fear and loathing in Ensenada…
Had no one asked to see my passport? I had to have been mistaken. I shuffled through the pages. No stamp. No one had seen my passport. Suddenly, the events at the border became but a blur. How did I cross a country line without a shred of evidence in doing so?
Recollections of failed checklists now started flooding my brain. Wasn’t I supposed to get a permit for my car? Didn’t I need a visa of sorts? Insurance. I was definitely supposed to get insurance. Holy sh*t. Did I just enter illegally…?
I raced back to Van Morrison and immediately starting calling any and everyone that I knew who had ever set foot on Mexican soil. Tell me I didn’t just drive three hours from the border with no proof of having ever crossed. Tell me I haven’t just completely screwed myself over. For the love of all things holy, tell me I don’t have to go back to Tijuana.
No one told me any of those things. Everyone told me I had to go back.
I refused. That’s six more hours on desert roads. Six hours of wasted kilometers. Six hours of shockingly expensive Mexican gas. Six hours more of baited breath, praying that Van Morrison even makes it. I refused.
I spent the next three hours googling immigration facilities in Ensenada. Nothing made sense. Everything seemed hopeless. Finally, I dug far enough into the cesspool of cyber uselessness and pulled out a travel blog from 2005.
A woman and her husband had decided to drive the Baja with their children, and to the benefit of my current disaster, had made the very same mistake I had. They had driven straight through the border, without having seen the signs (????) indicating the following customs office.
I read that they didn’t have to return to Tijuana and defy death for a second time. I read that they were able to sort everything in Ensenada and live happily ever after. But that was thirteen years ago. This was 2018, where pessimism was rudely reminding me to never believe everything you read on the internet.
I shut off my phone and tried not to cry. For unlike the fake ones, real tears never solved anything. Neither did tequila but I remembered seeing a restaurant directly beside the RV site and I needed something to keep me from stewing in my fear and incessant regret.
Finding solace in locals…
The restaurant was called Villa Marina. I was sat beside a window and given a menu.
“No necesito, gracias. Tequila, por favor.”
“Tu hablas espanol?!” The waiter’s eyes lit up. Mine would have too if he’d bring me my damn tequila.
“No. Muy poco.”
“Tu hablas muy bien!”
“Gracias.” I responded dully and cracked my knuckles to enunciate the silence.
“Lo siento. Uno momento, Senorita. Regresare con tu tequila ahora mismo!”
I had no idea what he had just said, but I heard tequila and that was enough.
When he returned, I immediately asked for another. I’ve never been one to cloak the inner sufferings of my emotional state and so my waiter was propelled to ask, in english, if I was OK.
“I’ve seen better days, my friend. Not gonna lie.”
“But you’re in Mexico! What is there to be sad for?’
I explained my woes and he simply smiled and told me everything would work itself out. And strangely, I believed him. Perhaps because the next time he returned it was not just with top shelf, but a third shot. On the house.
By the time I left I had a warm, delusional buzz and was ready to take on the world. As I passed the main office of the campsite, Julio poked his head out the door and waved hello. I took this as an invitation to invade his space and drink his beer.
“Jesse,” He thought my name was Jesse, and I hadn’t the heart, nor the effort to correct him, “You are tough, this will be no problem. No problem.”
“Thanks Julio. You’re a good friend.”
We raised our Tecate cans.
“Salud!” He said.
“Salud!” I echoed.
“To tomorrow, for you.”
“Manana.” I winked.