Border Stories

Travel Stories: San Diego native Jeff Spurrier has visited Tijuana's tourist circus countless times. Now he's on a Reality Tour and the sites beyond Avenida Revolucion are sobering.

The Tijuana activists show us detailed graphs and maps, illustrating the drastic degradation of the local environment resulting from Tijuana’s continuing population boom. But it’s been a long day and despite the whump-whump-whump coming from the sound system, my eyes glaze over and I enviously watch kids cavorting in the gentle surf.

The next day we awaken at 4 a.m. to drive into the desert outside Mexicali, two hours to the east from Tijuana. Mexicali is a major U.S.-Mexico border crossing. Today happens to be Dia de los Migrantes, and we’re heading for an early morning mass being held for the hundreds who have died from starvation, heat or thirst trying to cross the border.

We turn off the main road onto a one-lane dirt track that runs straight into the desert, dead-ending a few hundred yards from a four-foot high sand barrier that marks the frontier. Even at 6 a.m. the heat is unbearable. Every few minutes a white U.S. border patrol SUV trundles down the access road on the other side, slowing down to check out the group of locals and activists clustered in a semi-circle around a priest. We’re each given a name stenciled on tape to adhere to a large white cross. Like many, mine said “no identificado.”

After the mass half the group of locals and supporters set out to walk the 12 miles through the desert to the crossing in Mexicali. We get there in about half an hour in our van and spend the morning waiting for the pilgrimage to arrive. They straggle in about noon, dusty and flushed, and immediately start hanging plastic water jugs with the names of the dead on the fence. Empty water bottles are the most common item found with the bodies on this stretch of the border. We Americans are warned off from actively participating in the installation since it could be construed as interfering in Mexican politics and thus grounds for deportation. A crowd quickly gathers since the fence being decorated is right at the main pedestrian and car crossing.

As we stand there, chatting under the shade of the arcade with some San Diego activists, something altogether commonplace happens. Aided by a few friends, a teenager suddenly hoists himself up the sides of the fence. He successfully slings himself over, then sets off at a jaunty pace towards a McDonald’s, a few blocks away.

“This is the best time,” says one of his friends. “Mid-day on a Sunday.” Moments later, another kid makes his escape, waving to his friends triumphantly as he trots away. It’s quickly turned into a competition, a combination of reality television and X-game, and I confess, just for a moment, I think wistfully of my Hi-8, back on the shelf in L.A.

It’s 114 degrees and here on the Mexican side families are doing their Sunday shopping despite the heat, hurrying before the stores close at 2 p.m. for siesta. Over on the U.S. side the streets are deserted, like the “Where Is Everybody?” episode of the Twilight Zone.

On the way out of town, back to Tijuana, we stop to take snapshots of the infamous New River, an incredibly noxious flow of raw sewage and toxic effluvia with a bouquet you can smell for miles away. We finally get to Tijuana just after 10 p.m. where the circus is in full swing. Along Avenida Revolucion the American tourists are finishing their day of cheap nachos, cheap sex, cheap plastic surgery, and cheap Prozac with the obligatory cheap alcohol, one dollar tequila shooters. Soon they’ll be joining the river of cars swelling at the U.S. checkpoint.

At home a few days later, I read in the Los Angeles Times about two bodies found in the desert, east of Tijuana: A man and a woman and one water bottle. No identification on either.

Jeff Spurrier has written for The Atlantic Monthly, Outside, Details and other publications. He splits his time between Los Angeles and San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.

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