Monday, August 27, 2012

Please Don't Feed the Gringos


Thoughts on our trip to Baja...

Do You Speak My Language?
Here's a fact: I look Mexican.  

I do, and that's cool.  It's due to a mixture of my Portuguese, Native Hawaiian and Filipino heritage, and has made for many interesting interactions since I moved to California.  Once, for example, while in a gift shop at Discovery Kingdom, the cashier started speaking to me in Spanish.  When I apologized and said I didn't speak any Spanish (not even a little.  Not even the embarrassing amount of Spanish most normal people speak.), he started yelling at me for not knowing and respecting my Mexican culture.

That was fun.

So, last month when Nate suggested we take a trip to see his friend in San Diego, then head on down to Baja for a few days, I worried a little (Lie.  A lot.) about the language barrier.  While there, worry turned into a full-blown culture crisis.

Who was I to come to Mexico and not speak Spanish?  Does that make me one of those snotty American tourists who feel like the entire world over should speak English just because I do?  Does it show disrespect to Mexican people?  What do I do when someone addresses me and not Nate (who does speak Spanish, but doesn't look at all Mexican)?  Does this mean we have to stay in all-tourist areas -- where Americans are catered to -- rather than getting to know the "real" Baja?

So many questions!

And while it turns out that many/most people in Baja are bilingual (and therefore totally show me up), we were also lucky enough that our friends (one of which was from Tijuana) were able to field most questions directed at me -- like, What would you like to eat, Miss?  Can you please get out of the middle of the walkway?  No, that is not the way to the bathroom!  Still, not speaking the language and dealing with feelings of first world privilege and guilt ended up having a big impact on me.  I began avoiding eye contact with everyone.  I, who may just well be the most sickeningly polite person you know, began looking down at my feet instead of saying Thank you!, or This food is delicious!, or Yes, please hold the chiles!

My takeaway?  Learn a second language, dammit! 

Uno Mas Taco, Por Favor (see what I did there?)
My second takeaway from Baja is that the food is delicious and I thankfully have a stomach of steel.  Nate, unfortunately, did not fare as well and was sick for a week after we returned to the states.

Our plan, food-wise, was to sort of do Baja the way Anthony Bourdain did, and add in some extra stops along the way.  So here are some places to check out if you're heading down south:
  • Mercado Hidalgo, Tijuana (right after you cross the border): Really cool market with lots of yummy fruits, veggies, tejuino (fermented corn drink), and household goodies.
  • Dandy del Sur, Tijuana (near Revolucion Ave.): One of the bars Bourdain went to; a quiet, cool place to get a drink.
  • Mariscos Chavez, Tijuana: A food cart that served me that delicious fish taco pictured above.
  • Mariscos, Playas (on Avenida Del Pacifico, near The Wall): Get a seat on the balcony overlooking the beach and order a seafood coctel.  Die happy.
  • Tacos de Frances, Playas: Good late-night al pastor taco spot.
  • L.A. Cetto Winery, Valle de Guadalupe: Free wine tour.  Pretty setting.  In Baja's wine country.
  • Hussong's Cantina, Ensenada: Do yourself a favor and don't go to Papas y Beer.  Go here instead.  There are peanut shells on the floor and live music.  There's also a Pink Floyd cover band on some nights.
  • La Guerrerense, Ensenada: Famous and seemingly delicious to everyone who ate it.  I didn't partake because these seafood tostadas are SPICY.  Another Boudain stop.
We also had the best tortas I've even eaten, but I have no way of directing you to them other than to tell you the shop was in Tijuana, next to a liquor store.  I'm sorry.

So Close and Yet, So Far Away
Though I've lived in California for about six years now, this summer was the first time I'd ever visited Mexico.  While in college in Washington state (and still now when I visit), my friends and I regularly made the trek up to Vancouver, BC for shopping, that one time for the Olympics, and most often because we're craving all-you-can-eat sushi.  But going south of the border?  Nope.

I'd like to say it's because of the distance, but that's not it.  After all, you can stand on the outskirts of San Diego and actually see Tijuana.  It's that close.  And, okay, maybe it's eight hours from where I physically live in California, but that didn't really factor in either.  The truth is that the thought of going made me nervous.  The thought of crossing the border -- that border in particular -- gave me so much anxiety it's just stupid.  I don't know why.  I'm an American citizen.  I don't traffic drugs, weapons or women.  I really had nothing to be afraid of.  

So, maybe I was apprehensive because crossing the border, seeing how our nation has so completely barricaded ourselves in (lest the terrifying invasion of Mexican immigrants happen!  Gasp!), would force me to acknowledge my privileged place in the world, and my shame at the extents to which my country will go to keep that place.  Because let's face the facts here: That wall?  You know the one I'm talking about.  It's absolutely ridiculous.  It's racist and cruel and obvious and shortsighted.  And reading the things that people have written on the posts of that wall made me -- as an American -- feel like the biggest hypocritical asshole in the known world.

Or maybe I was apprehensive because being in Tijuana would point out to me how wrong I've been about the city itself.  Because in my head, Tijuana was a John Wayne western.  In my head, Tijuana was a gang fight on the cusp of getting really bad.  In my head, Tijuana was what they still show us on the news.  But in reality, it's just a city like any other.  It's one that's struggling to come back from years of narco-terrorism, drug wars and the American recession.  It's one that's reclaiming its identity and seems to be in a constant state of reconstruction.

I'm excited to see what it turns itself into.

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