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Plug in “Tijuana” to Google Maps from anywhere in San Diego, and you’ll get the app’s handy warning: “This route crosses a country border.”
Less than a year ago, my family moved from Louisville, Ky., where we’d been for 18 years, to Tijuana, Mexico, where my dad has a new job as a foreign service officer with the U.S. State Department. Previously a reporter and editor, he’d wanted to get out of print journalism’s death spiral while he still could.
Foreign service officers — otherwise known as diplomats — work in consulates across the globe, gathering economic and political information to send back to the States.
Pros: I get to tell people my dad’s a diplomat, and our house, which the State Department pays for, is much nicer than the home we could afford back east. (Three-and-a-half baths!)
Cons: My entire Spanish vocabulary consists of curse words, “I’m sorry” and “Where’s the bathroom?”
Most of the time, I still live back east as an undergraduate student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. But as an intern for Voice of San Diego this summer, I had my first up-close and personal experience with the commute across the border. My route, from Tijuana to Liberty Station in Point Loma, is about an hour each way, which means I listen to more NPR in a day than my former-journalist parents ever have.
There are plenty of people — tens of thousands — who cross the border every day. Just months ago, it would’ve taken me hours to cross at San Ysidro. But with the addition of new lanes, wait times range at the border from 15 to 30 minutes — a huge improvement.
Still, lines of cars up to half a mile long jam into the lanes each morning from 6 a.m. to about 10 a.m., and the daily wait does not make for a smooth, frustration-free commute.
That’s despite the fact that the vast majority of people crossing are so-called “trusted travelers” who have gone through the arduous process of joining U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Global Entry programs. The programs theoretically make it easier to cross for those who do so regularly.
It takes months to apply for and receive a Global Entry card. Months, and a lot of tedious forms to fill out and documents to dig out of storage, ending with an in-person interview you’ll probably have to drive hours to get to.
All that, and then you still have to spend 20 minutes of your Monday morning inching your car slowly forward, only to be asked by a weary, occasionally disgruntled border guard if you’re bringing anything from Mexico. No, sir, unless you’d count a strong sense of ennui.
Here I must admit that as the daughter of a consular officer, I am afforded special border-crossing privileges. Armed with a consulate license plate, I can go through a separate lane for buses and cut to the front of the line.
For a couple of weeks, I self-righteously declared I would never use that privilege and would suffer the slow crawl like everyone else. Then one day, running late, I took the bus lane. And I never looked back.
Needless to say, Tijuana drivers don’t take kindly to being cut in line just as they’ve gotten to the front (who can blame them?). Sometimes, several drivers in a row will shake their heads at me and inch as close as possible to the car in front of them, making it impossible for me to enter.
The border guards aren’t huge fans of the privilege, either. One day a guard, convinced I wasn’t following the correct procedure for using the separate lane, said, “Young lady, this is a courtesy we give you guys. Do you know what a courtesy is?”
Most of the time, the guards in the bus lane are helpful, but on occasion they’ll stand defiantly under their tent, chatting and apparently willfully ignoring consulate cars.
Once, my mother got fed up and got out of her car to go get someone’s attention. Despite being a decidedly non-threatening, sweet Southern woman, she scared the living daylights out of one of the guards when she tapped him on the shoulder from behind.
I guess it’s nerve-wracking to ferry thousands of strangers across a border every day. But seeing an armed guard jump out of his skin at the sight of my middle-aged mom was still pretty funny.
So sometimes, wading through the mess that is a Mexico-to-U.S. border crossing in the morning guaranteed I’d arrive at work already feeling like I’d hit my absolute limit for tolerating nonsense.
That said — there were parts of commuting from Mexico that delighted me.
First, driving habits in Tijuana are much more, shall we say, honest than in the States. There’s none of that politely waiting to merge into the next lane, while silently and passive-aggressively fuming that no one will let you over. Instead, you don’t wait at all — you just bully your way in, dammit. It’s every man for himself out there.
This is terrifying at first, especially when taxi drivers sidle up so close to you that you brace yourself for the sound of scraping metal or a rearview mirror knocked off its hinge.
But over time, I’ve realized: I am free. Free to be the absolutely selfish, uncivil jerk I’ve always wanted to be behind the wheel. And the best part? No one faults me for it.
Then, once I Grand Theft Auto my way to the border-crossing booth, the more chatty guards will ask me about my Kentucky license plate, an anomaly in Tijuana. This gives me the opportunity to find out what West Coast natives think of the Southeast.
The answer? Not much. Unless you count “There’s some good bourbon out there, I hear!”
But even more than the exchanges I had with English-speaking officials, I loved the rapport I slowly built with one of the Mexican guards manning the bus lane, who stands in the same spot every morning and moves aside a traffic cone to let me through.
At first, one always wore a gruff, slightly threatening expression each time I passed. I would wave and smile, he wave back with a frown. By early July, though, his expression had morphed to a beaming smile and a friendly wave. I don’t know his name, but he became my daily reminder to be less bitter.
Finally, there’s the sheer spectacle of the border lanes, where dozens of small business enterprises market their wares each morning to the dead-eyed drivers waiting to cross.
There are the roadside stands selling churros and empanadas, whose workers race to and from vehicles to their stand and back, presumably having to constantly memorize the makes and models of the cars they’re taking orders from, since the lines are moving all the time.
Then there are the men and women juggling trays of cheap necklaces, religious trinkets and portable racks of purses that are made of what looks like traditional cloth but feature sewed-on Hello Kitty insignias. Also up for grabs are newspapers, gum, children’s toys — you name it.
Finally, there are the people who don’t seem to be selling anything, but who trot across the paths of the waiting cars as if daring them to jerk forward at the wrong second.
Truly, the community at the border could be its own reality show. And if I spoke Spanish, I’d certainly have gained a couple of pants sizes with early-morning chocolate-covered churros.
All in all, I’m not going to recommend that anyone devote two hours of each day to driving, period — especially not in San Diego, where I have to leave the office either at 4 p.m. or after 6 p.m. if I want to avoid the kind of California traffic that reminds me why I like the rural South.
But I will say that fewer people take advantage of San Diego’s proximity to Tijuana than I would expect in a border city. True, getting around in Tijuana by car is an undertaking, and without a Global Entry card, your wait will be unpredictable at best, exceedingly long at worst.
But take a stab at it! Crossing into Mexico is a piece of cake. And Tijuana isn’t all that different from this fair city — at least, Tijuana residents have an equally strong penchant for quality craft beer.
While you’re there, you might even try a bottle of my personal favorite: Border Psycho.