Baja Justice at the Borderline

borderline 1

By Bob Dorn

This week, my best friend and wife and I– the two of us– spent 48 hours on a quick trip to Baja; three of those were spent in line waiting to get back into the U.S.

It was 7:30 a.m. when we had finished looping around the center of TJ and entered the river bed east of the center. We didn’t know at this point that we’d followed “San Diego” signs until they’d disappeared. We were left to ourselves to learn that the left lane would turn into a Left Turn Only lane, withdrawing us from our salvation and guarantor of freedom, the U.S.

We begged and implored drivers to our right to let us in; the California drivers just stared straight ahead and inched forward, the Baja drivers said a few words before inching their cars forward. We took the demon left because the cop at the intersection wouldn’t let us do otherwise. We looped up and around, taking a left and another left and by 7:45 we entered the wrong line we knew was the right line, not that damned left turn line.

You understand.

In Mexico you always get what you need, if it’s not what you want. (Not like here, where you’re most likely to get what somebody else wants you to get.)

Neither our line nor the one to the right moved. Not an inch. The demon left was freely moving.

After five minutes we moved a half a car length. At 20 minutes we still hadn’t reached the intersection where the cop had told us to go left and left, around and “atras.” We started debating if we shouldn’t just take the demon left and go back to the center of TJ for a breakfast and a walk around, and then try crossing at 11 a.m or so, or to try the Otay crossing, or the border highway to Tecate and cross there.

You know how it is. Nothing. No se puede. La una es la otra. Blue collar Zen. An existentialist would have gone to Tecate, or bought a house in TJ. We just sat in line.

Guys with soiled rags kept working the lines, holding their cloths up or snapping the car hoods with them, offering to skim the dust off drivers’ cars. I kept shaking my head, no.

We were two cars away from the intersection when a woman in the demon left lane squirted the gas and got her compact Chevy’s bumper ahead of us. Unaccountably, I called out “you Prick!”, but she’d gotten in. At the intersection, the cop who’d seen what she’d done directed her to take the demon left. She didn’t comply and continued ahead and around him, entering the promised lanes to the promised gates to the Promised Land.

Squeegee-GuyWe still had to cross the intersection. Once across it and irrevocably bound for the U.S. we stopped behind a late model white Hyundai Expanda (or whatever it was) whose driver had consented to a wipe down. The Hyundai looked better afterward. I was tempted to get the soiled rag treatment but by then was locked into non-compliance.

We moved ahead about a car length, then were stopped, then moved ahead another car length a minute or so later when I noticed the cop walking up from behind, toward us. But he passed us as well as the Hyundai immediately ahead to reach the Chevy compact that had defied his order to turn left back at the intersection.

“Escuchame,” he commanded her. She rolled down her window. About five exchanges passed between them in which he kept pointing to the intersection now behind him. Then, finally, he stepped back. She pulled the car out of line to the left and slowly squeezed it backward along the concrete dividers, aided by two be-ragged car cleaners, one in front, one in back, both of them waving their hands and laughing, calling out, to the left, the right, un poquito mas.

The cop showed her the demon left she hadn’t taken. She took it.

After that, when we’d made it to the first overpass, we began to measure the progress. It averaged about two and one half car lengths every three minutes. How many cars were ahead of us we couldn’t begin to tell.

I’d noticed a Dodge Ram 1500, a Fabulous Furry Freak brother at the wheel, or a slick, low-riding Mitsubishi sport coupe with a sparkly enameled paint job, or another coupe bearing a guy whom I’d refused to let in ahead of us. When we’d pass them we’d congratulate ourselves. When they’d pass us we’d say, uh-oh, we are in a bad lane.

And of course, after the third or fourth alternation of relative advantage between our car and theirs she and I grew less and less affected.

Or, we reverted to counting the car lengths, and the number of seconds or minutes between them. When I could see the border gates perhaps 400 or 500 yards ahead we realized that we were rolling up to four, then six, then, sometimes, even 10 car lengths every five minutes.

After a while of higher wellness my best pal asked me how long I thought it would take to get to the border. I tried to count the cars and got to 20 before I couldn’t see well enough to know how exactly how many lay ahead of those 20 – some had trailers, others were vans that blocked the view beyond them — it looked to be twice as many. I figured with luck the 50 or 60 cars ahead of us would require 15 to 20 minutes.

There was little else that occurred to us to talk about, so my mind went back to admiring the action of that cop, now some two hours behind us.

I wondered what had moved him to go after the renegade who was driving the Chevy. Had he recognized how achingly slow the line was moving, and what happens when people don’t like what’s happening to them? Each car length under these conditions becomes another insult, another reminder that you can’t see the border and already you’ve been in the riverbed or on the first overpass for an hour.

Did he know better than we did that we had another two hours to go, and so did the car to the right of us, and that the cars behind us might face even more time crossing than we would, and that they might go nuts were they to encounter a cheater or two more than we did? And once they’d gone nuts that he’d have more than he could handle?

Or maybe he just had a good sense of justice in him, blue collar justice. Baja justice.

You think of these things when you have time to.



Bob Dorn

Bob Dorn was an Evening Tribune staff writer and left the paper, becoming the local stringer for The New York Times and San Jose Mercury News and writing for The Reader and San Diego Magazine. He taught writing for some 12 years in UCSD's Literature Department writing program.

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  1. avatar says

    It’s a lot easier to walk across the border as a pedestrian, and Fridays and Mondays are bad days to go to Mexico. Wednesday is the best day. I’ve walked across the border with no line at times. Most of the time there is a wait though.

  2. avatarjudi says

    Gotta admire your guts, Bob. Used to camp in Mexico – below Ensenada – for over 13 years in a row. Every year we faced the same problem that you faced but the draw to the area more than made up for it. Of course, we stopped off in Rosarito for carne asada tacos; fresh pan; butter at the grocery store next door, and “ate” our way through the border crossing.
    Used to work in San Ysidro and went over the border for gas, food, clothes on a weekly basis. No more. You couldn’t get me across the border anymore. Lost a good friend to the drug cartel; she was in the wrong place and the wrong time.

    Glad you came back safely, even though it took you awhile. Just curious – why did you go over there anyway? Did you need passports?

    • avatarbob dorn says

      Passports required. Dunno what the BP does to you if you don’t have one.
      Pemex is charging California prices, and no one gives you the 13 peso to a
      dollar rate; it’s 12 to 1 on the street.
      But you can get an airy clean seaside hotel room for $50 to $60, and a real
      full-scale meal with a bottle of wine for $20 or so. (We had a deal with a
      friend to meet at his place for the second night and slept on couches.)
      It was all good, great hardworking people who like to talk and are curious
      as to why you speak some Spanish. Like it always was.

  3. avatarmichael-leonard says

    Twenty-five years ago, my wife (she’s fluent in Spanish) and I used to drive to TJ for dinner anytime we had a whim to. But, we haven’t been even once in several years. This article is exactly why.
    S.D. Reader recently had a story titled “Baja is Back” and my answer is, “No, it ain’t — not until something is done about the border!” I can’t fathom that there are folks who do the border wait every day.

    • avatarGoatskull says

      I read that article also. Truth is things have picked up there in recent years. Still not like it used to be but better than it’s been. I don’t go down there either (unless in a tour group) but I know a lot of people who do. They generally walk across the boarder but some drive and actually don’t mind the wait to get back.

  4. avatar says

    Just like the good old days, only worse.

    We used to have fun in the Line — kids peeing into jars, eating crocodilo-shaped pan dulce, buying a big gilt-framed red-velvet Virgen de Guadalupe. Never more than two hours’ wait, part of the TJ Experience. Only one fender-bender over many many years.

    That vindictive cop is no joke. My daughter was down there on business earlier this summer, trying to come back in a ride-sharing van that supposedly had expedited permissions. A Mexican gendarme didn’t like the cut of the van driver’s jib and sent him on a looong detour much like your Terrible Turn to the Left. (Do you think that is a political message?) Their eventual return took hours, with much cussing and recrimination from passengers.

    You can always dial up, Bob, spill all your secrets to US Government surveillance agencies and prove with a court document that you successfully fought any red-light tickets from before Mayor Filner’s time, and then ante up $125.25 x 2 for you and the Missus. This might, over time, get you a Sentri Pass. For a year.

    • avatarbob dorn says

      Must have been my fault for not being more explicit, but I thought the cop had preserved the peace.

      • avatar says

        Keeping the peace? By searching out the driver who had illegitimately squeezed into a place in the line, ordering her OUT and sending her BACK? Was somebody threatening her? I doubt it. Sounds like a macho authoritarian display, much like what my daughter’s van driver experienced. In the good old days, people would establish their own imperfect order in line without the help of Mexican po-lice.

    • avatarGoatskull says

      I know this won’t be a popular opinion but in this case i’m sort of on the cop’s side. She should follow rules like every one else and do what he instructs, regardless of inconvenience. She gaffed him off and paid the price.

  5. avatarjohn eisenhart says

    We had a two hour wait Saturday night – walking thru customs!– ugh. It was a staged slow down based on the “supposed terror alert” . All is well in T.J. Carry on.

  6. avatarJudith Wesling says

    Hate that game of chicken (squeeze that bumper in just a little, I dare you to hit me, my car is old and yours is new so tougher for you and I don’t care and can cuss better than you anyway kind of stuff) so no longer go to TJ. I feel bad for the small traders and restaurants (Cafe La Especial in the arcade near Woolworth’s, where we always took out-of-towners ) since tourist trade is so diminished. A friend of mine said the walk over was much delayed also so I avoid that too. Haven’t been back since 9/11 and that’s sad. We used to go every year on our anniversary for dinner! Then again I used to drive up to LA just to get my hair cut. For the day. Those days are over too.
    Still like San Diego and southern California though…

    • avatarbob dorn says

      I guess what I should have pointed out is that the U.S. is partly the problem. Our State Department has made entering America tough; the Mexicans haven’t made leaving Mexico difficult. Okay, passports, but why not separate lines if you’ve got one? The border line reflects the fact we consider ourselves less riddled by crime and criminals than the Mexicans are. That’s kinda funny, but when you consider that underneath the long wait is the consideration that Americans who go to Mexico probably deserve more scrutiny from Sam you stop laughing.