I don't know what I was expecting. All I know was it was not at all what I was expecting. My first thought upon entering Mexico was, "Oh God, what is this place?" That was a true prayer, not taking God's name in vain. I was overwhelmed by it and I was only in Tijuana. It was crowded and dirty and the paint was peeling off buildings. I pressed my face closer to the window, trying to get accustomed to this entirely different world. We raced through Tijuana towards the ocean and Rosarito, our first stop.
As we headed west, my friend John pointed out a long fence that climbed up steep hills and drove straight down valleys. "That's the US/Mexico border," he told me. He said that the fence was much higher than it looked and, especially in this area, very dangerous to attempt to cross. As we neared the Pacific, Sarah pointed to the spot where the ocean and the fence intersected. "I used to live right here," she said. "There're hundreds of names on that fence of people who died trying to get into America here." I was amazed. Things like this still happen! They're not just something you hear about in class or on the news...people are dying while trying to come to America.
I was quiet for quite awhile. I couldn't conceive of the desperation that would cause somebody to put their life on the line in order to live illegally in a different country, working for minimum wage and then sending the money back to Mexico. Most of the money in the Mexican economy comes from the US.
We drove through another area, this one along the ocean on highway 1. Here were the grand casas with huge glass windows and the resorts you see in brochures...a tourist's idea of Mexico. But it was too late to fool me; I had already seen the other side.
Finally we arrived in Rosarito. We drove right through downtown in our quest to find a spot to park two large vans pulling trailers. It was Easter Sunday...the most unique Easter of my life. Rosarito was overflowing with people in the streets, in the hotels, crowding the sidewalks and the beach. We were dropped off with a pick-up time and strict instructions to never go anywhere without at least two other people, one of whom had to be male. Two friends and I found a guy willing to brave the market with us.
Rosarito, too, was in various states of disrepair. John warned us not to buy food unless we had scoped out the cleanliness situation first and, under any circumstances, not to drink anything made with large quantities of water. Armed with this knowledge, we braved the streets. We paused for a moment to talk with an English-speaking shopkeeper who called out to us. We told him who we were and what we were doing in Mexico. Upon hearing that we were Christians, he launched into a description of the Holy Week festivities that had happened this past week. They had actually done a crucifixion! The man didn't die, but they nailed him to a cross after a parade down the main street.
Rosarito was such a place of contradictions to me. On one hand you had the Catholic people actually nailing a man to a cross in their misguided zeal, and on the other you had hundreds of bars and spring-breakers in various states of sobriety and dress. I was offered alcohol many times in that afternoon, but you will be pleased to know that the only thing I drank was Coca-Cola.
I didn't buy anything in Rosarito. The only time I was tempted was when little kids (about 2 or 3 years old) would come to me asking me to buy "chicle" (gum). But like I was told, "You can't buy from all of them." So I saved my money and just watched...watched this place, so different from all that is familiar, and yet now a part of me. Mexico, in all of the shock and filth, has shaped part of my soul, making it tender yet tough, and affecting my thoughts in deep and dramatic ways.