I left LA at 7:45, hoping to avoid traffic. The 405 was clear for a while, then became a parking lot for about 20 minutes. I finally found KROQ on the radio, and Stephanie was right – it’s a good station. When they’re playing music, at least.
I got to San Juan Capistrano shortly before 10am. I stopped at Starbucks, and they directed me to the mission. It was the most impressive one I had seen so far, even compared to the missions in San Antonio. It was a huge complex with incredible gardens: cactus, flowering plants and trees, palm trees, and water gardens.
I went to the Tamale Museum, which was indeed about tamales. They had a great Dia de los Muertos exhibit, which is probably one of my favorite things in the world. I visited the bathroom, the cemetery, the gift shop, and the chapel, in that order – I had my priorities.
At the gift shop, I bought some awesome Jesus souvenirs under the watchful and somewhat suspicious gaze of the old ladies at the counter. They could smell the atheism on me, and didn’t seem to like that I was buying holy water bottles and a bible-on-a-keychain. I went to see the church, and stepped into a chapel off to the side, one of those where you pay $1 and light a votive candle and you get your wish, or something. There were hundreds of candles burning, and the chapel was well over 100 degrees. I’m pretty sure Jesus winked at me, or maybe I just imagined it.
San Juan Capistrano was so great. I loved being able to appreciate the fascinating combination of beautiful and creepy without the annoying filter of religion getting in the way.
I left the mission and crossed the street to the non-mission-sanctioned gift shop. I stopped to take a picture of the sign about the swallows. Proof that I’m still completely juvenile: I turned into Beavis. I thought, “Swallow. Heh heh.” Since all the jokes have probably already been made, I’ll spare you. But, still. Swallow. Heh heh. I think I saw that story on the internet somewhere.
I got back on I-5. It was only in the 70s, but it was so humid it made me squirm. It was hazy and I could hardly see the ocean even though I was driving right alongside it. I was doing 85-90 with almost no traffic. Then I raced the Coaster, and the Coaster won.
I arrived at the San Diego visitors’ center by 10:45. I like visitors’ centers because they tend to offer maps (it’s a fetish) and clean bathrooms. In this case, I was wrong. The women’s room smelled worse than the pit toilets at Yosemite. The women at the counter were less giving directions than they were selling hotel and restaurant discounts. I got directions into downtown on a big sheet of paper that was 5% map, 95% advertising, and a trolley schedule.
I drove into downtown San Diego and found the waterfront. I saw huge naval ships and the cruise ship station. I saw the famous Santa Fe Depot. I drove past the Embarcadero twice, and thought maybe I was missing something. It looked like a big parking lot to me. What the hell is an embarcadero, anyway?
I followed my giant ad sheet to the Gaslamp Quarter, the old part of town with shops and restaurants. I parked in the mall ramp (the vegetable half – I was on the onion level, even though I’d have preferred avocado). On the way out, I walked through the mall, which was outdoor, in the sense that it was just like any mall I knew (and, being from Minnesota, I know malls), except it was topless. Um, roofless.
I started my usual wandering and looking for lunch routine. It was 11:30, and there were a ton of restaurants in the area. However, hardly any of them were open. I was confused. It was Monday, but the restaurants didn’t open until noon. Back in the friendly midwest, we often go to lunch at 11:30. Hmm. Anyway, there also seemed to be some sort of city ordinance that any menu had to consist of at least 95% meat. I was irritated. I stopped into Starbucks and asked for restaurant advice while waiting for my americano. The cute british boy behind the counter yelled at me for being vegetarian. He had no idea.
I wandered some more. I called Heather and talked about two Nates and Utah. Finally, I settled on a Mexican place with a few vegetarian dishes, figuring that since I was in San Diego, I should get some local-ish food. It was a mistake, as it was essentially the Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville of Mexican dining. All the servers were blonde and cute and seemed to really care about sports. They were also playing the worst music ever.
I rushed through lunch and walked back to the most confusing outdoor mall in America. I had to buy something to get parking validated. Something, anything, so I decided on postcards. But then I looked up, and way up at the top, there was a Hello Kitty store. Getting there proved to be a challenge, however. The mall was a series of ramps, half-staircases, escalators, and full staircases, that all seemed to spiral upwards but not in any logical way. I’d go up a level and find myself on the wrong side. I’d walk around and go up another half-level and be on the right side, but only able to go back down. I’d see the store, head that direction, and lose sight of it again. Finally, I realized the problem: the mall was designed by M.C. Escher (if you think he’s a DJ, you are incorrect). Having figured that out, I found the store easily, and I had no problem spending money to get my parking validation stamp.
I got my car and drove up to the transit station north of town. It took a while to figure out how things worked, because the station served all the buses, as well as the trolleys, the regular commuter trains, the Amtrak, and the Coaster. I found a kiosk and bought a round-trip ticket to the last stop on the line: San Ysidro. And then I boarded the Tijuana Trolley.
It was about a half-hour ride on the trolley. I figured I’d get a good tour of San Diego by riding the whole route, and I was correct. I was pretty unimpressed, having just seen SF and LA. San Diego is a fairly small town, and didn’t seem to have much going on. Near the last few stops, the trolley barely creeps along. I saw a huge military complex. Once we got near Tijuana, we could see the city on a large hill in the distance. The pollution was unbelievable. A giant Mexican flag flies over the city, way bigger than any flag Perkins has to offer. I was excited, but nervous about crossing the border by myself. I wasn’t that concerned about my safety, but still figured I had to be careful.
When you exit the trolley at San Ysidro, you’re immediately funneled onto a ramp that brings you to an overpass where you can look down on the border crossing. I wanted to take pictures, but there are a million signs warning you not to do so, and that you were being videotaped and monitored. I was really glad I wasn’t trying to cross the border in my car, as it looked nightmarish. Also, who wants to park a Saab in Tijuana? Not me, muchachos. So I walked.
So, when you first cross the border, you walk through this really nice brick plaza with modern sculpture and murals, and a tourist information booth. It’s clean and friendly. Then you go through a rotating iron gate which makes this loud clacking metal noise that I will never, ever forget. It was menacing. Through the turnstile, and you’re in Mexico. Only it’s not really Mexico, it’s this little plaza that’s built specially for tourists who want to dip their toes into Tijuana without getting in too deep. It’s called Viva Tijuana Plaza, and it features ‘pharmacies’ selling roofies, viagra, valium, hormones, and painkillers over-the-counter (in Tijuana, your American driver’s license is as good as a prescription), and crafts: sarapes, sombreros, beadwork, piñatas, aluminum artwork, and anything you can put a Corona logo on. Every shop sold the same thing, and each one had two or three guys standing outside, utilizing various methods of enticement: beckoning, calling, yelling, haranguing. I was vastly amused at first, because this was what I expected. I stopped at a booth with a particularly endearing shopkeeper, who assured me that I was his very good American friend, I was beautiful, and that he would give me a better deal than anyone else in the plaza. I picked out a Mexican wrestling mask, and the guy talked himself down from $25 to $10, while I just stood there laughing. I asked him for $8, but paid $10 anyway, because it was worth it for the entertainment. I rushed past the rest of the booths, and every single vendor said ‘hi’ or ‘hola’ or beckoned me in to see their fine wares. I was very happy to be wearing sunglasses, which made it much easier to not make eye contact.
On the other side of Viva Tijuana Plaza, there’s another pedestrian overpass lined with booths and people begging for change. This brings you across Rio Tijuana, which is a river in the loosest sense of the word. From there, you descend into the real city of Tijuana. I quickly became aware that it was at least 20 degrees hotter there than in San Diego, and had to be pushing 100. The sun was glaring, and the smog was visible even at ground level. I walked a few blocks past street vendors, and was called ‘girl’, ‘honey’, ‘sweetheart’, ‘baby’, ‘lady’, ‘sister’, and ‘señorita’. The noise and chaos was charming for about 20 minutes, then I was irritated. I stopped smiling and saying ‘no thanks’, and just kept walking.
At Revolución Avenue, there’s a giant arch welcoming you to Tijuana. The wind made a cool noise as it whistled through the wires. I walked around, disappointed with the ugly crafts and tired of being yelled at. I realized the lone American woman was just asking for it, so I tried to be nice and hurry past. I found my way to what was apparently the largest tourist thoroughfare, based on the number of pharmacies and margarita bars blasting the crappiest dance hits of the mid-90s. I walked into a big shop, and realized that all my tacky-souvenir needs had just been met in one place. I bought a bunch of loterias, a mirror edged with tile and hammered aluminum, some metal ornaments, and lots of dia de los muertos stuff. They wrapped everything up for me carefully, and joked about the giant loteria showdown I was obviously going to organize at home. I was happy.
My Mexican souvenir needs completely satiated, I stopped quickly for an iced latte at a cigar shop, then headed back to the border crossing. It was so painfully hot, and the sun was beating down on me, the man with the donkey painted to look like a zebra, some mariachis, and hundreds of drunk fratboys in semi-offensive tshirts. My bag stuffed full of everything I ever wanted from Mexico (not a single roofie amongst them), all I wanted was to get the hell out of Tijuana. I was sweaty, dirty, and cranky.
I followed the signs showing a determined-looking man walking back to the USA. I went back through fake-Tijuana, and kids kept running up to me, trying to get in one last sale before I left the country. They offered candy, bracelets, or wanted to show me a trick, like juggling. All of them shouted, “A dollar! A dollar!” I walked faster. A little girl, probably 4 or 5 years old, ran up and caught me off-guard:
her: (holding up a beaded bracelet) a dollar!
me: (rushing past) no thanks!
her: (running to keep up) a dollar!
me: no thanks!!
her: loca!! (runs away)
My entire life, summed up in one word by a little girl in Tijuana. Sigh.
At that point, I decided I needed a new tattoo. You know those Latino gang tattoos in the elaborate gothic letters? I’m getting one on the back of my neck: gringa. I kind of like the idea.
I walked back across a different pedestrian overpass. The border crossing leaving Mexico was way less elaborate than leaving the US, and there were people with begging children everywhere. Right at the border, there are several last-chance pharmacies. Don’t the border guards watch those? Anyway. I went through a metal detector, then stood in line for 10 minutes, waiting for customs. The guard looked at my ID, asked if I was a citizen, and what I was bringing back with me. Then I went through a second metal detector, and was back in the US. And, yes, I felt a huge sense of relief.
Worth noting, by the way: what’s the first and last thing you see at the US border? McDonald’s. It’s wrong.
I got back on the trolley to San Diego. The ride took much longer this time, and I was tired and hungry. They made us exit at Santa Fe station and wait for another trolley, so it was almost an hour and a half later, around 6pm, that I finally got back to my car.
I took I-5 south to the Coronado Bridge and crossed to the island. Apparently, it’s where the rich people hang out. There were lots of nice restaurants there, so I parked and set off to find dinner. I had really come to see the Hotel Del Coronado, the original Hotel California (Don Henley! Again!), which I expected to be a little motel or something, not this giant castle. I walked around the cute downtown, realizing that the island was also subject to the 95%-meat rule. I picked another Mexican place and had an OK salad, having been warned against their veggie burger. The restaurant was playing Heart on the overhead. I sat near the patio, and it had finally cooled off enough to be comfortable. The sun was setting, and I could see the beach from my table.
Leaving Coronado Island, the view of San Diego was impressive. I should have seen that when I first got there, and maybe I would have liked it more. At several points along the bridge, there were signs with the number for the Suicide Hotline. I called Heather about my plans for Vegas the next day, and talked to her the whole way up to my hotel, which I overshot by 10 miles or so. I called them for directions, turned around, and headed back. I cheered silently when I saw the Starbucks just a block away from the hotel, which meant I’d be fully prepared for my drive the next day. The super-nice girl at the counter got me checked in, then wrote me directions to the nearest Ralph’s (double-coupon days!), so I could get food for the car – since I was driving through the desert, I wasn’t expecting to find much in the way of vegetarian dining along the way. I ran my stuff up to the room, threw it on the bed, and left again. I knew that if I spent too much time there, I’d pass out. I was exhausted and shaky, and I clutched the perfectly-handwritten directions in my hand against the steering wheel the whole way to the store. I thought about the strange things you find comforting when you’re in a weird place. Like coffee shops. IKEA. Text messaging on your cellphone. Good maps. Your travel journal. The pen you got at the Glacier Gateway Motel. Really friendly people you meet along the way.
At Ralph’s, I bought a protein bar, bananas, an apple, veggie chips, two giant bottles of Evian, and 4 Red Bulls. I thought, “If these Red Bulls don’t last longer than tomorrow, there’s something wrong with me.”
Cashier: Do you have a Ralph’s Club Card?
Cashier: Do you want one?
Me: [Tiniest pause as my head says ‘YES!’] Nope!
I have to get over the Big Lebowski thing. But I can’t, so as I drove away, I thought to myself, “I shopped at Ralph’s in La Jolla.” I said it over and over: Ralph’s in La Jolla. Go on, say it. It’s funny, right? La Jolla!
I knew I was tired, because I could barely remember how to get back to the hotel the way I came. I went up to my room, got my email, booked a hotel room for Vegas (my criteria being 1: cheap and 2: oldschool, none of that new-hotel crap). I took a shower and used almost the entire bar of soap while I daydreamed about what I was going to do when I got home. In this order:
1. Take the longest shower of my life, so I could wash the western half of the US from my body. No, wait! The western half of North America! Yeah!
4. Repeat steps 2-3 as desired.
5. Dig through souvenirs.
6. Wash clothes.
Also, I realized the thing about doing stuff like going to Mexico alone: the very fine line between brave and stupid is simply a matter of whether you make it out unscathed. And it’s only in retrospect that you know for sure. With that, I made my pillow nest and went to bed.
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random notes from my travel journal:
there is way, way too much long blonde hair here. are they playing motley crue?
did i mention i love the freeways in la? at one point, it was 16 lanes wide. slamming on the brakes. insane.
they’re playing ac/dc now. i hate this place.
why do i keep asking starbucks baristas about vegetarian food? there is obviously some incorrect association in my mind, because i’ve yet to receive a single helpful suggestion. there are less vegetarians in the universe than i suspect. however, my oldschool starbucks card makes me an instant celebrity. i guess that’s the tradeoff.
there are some restaurants who are cool with alone-diners and some that are not. at the good places, the servers always spend more time talking to you, and pay more attention to you than they do to other people there. at the bad places, they look at you funny when you say ‘one, please’, and then ignore you once they take your order.
2:15 and i’m waiting for the trolley to tijuana. that would be a good song title.
i’m never going to tijuana alone again. i mean, it had to be done. and 45 minutes was enough. but as heather pointed out, i’ve covered all the countries in north america on this trip. i rule.
inside the trolleys, there are signs reading, ‘this is a high-performance vehicle. please hold on.’ i need that in chico.
holy crap, i’m going to vegas tomorrow. i’m so unprepared. i should probably book a hotel.
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