Come to think of it, the process is Kafka-esque. You are working at the same job, in the same work designation doing the same kind of work. But at the magic three year mark, the US government decides you must be subjected to a scrutiny not just by someone in the immigration department, but also by someone necessarily outside the country, who then wants to go through all your information (again, since you already submitted it once and it was scrutinized and approved).
But all that was moot as I flew the length of the country to cross the border into Mexico. All so I could get a stamp on my passport to enter and leave the country as I please (till the next time this formality will be required, of course).
I’d heard a few horror stories about Tijuana, but it was as nondescript as any random small town in a developing nation. At least the parts I saw. Apart from two flashing police cavalcades at night, nothing in my time there indicated anything remotely dangerous about the place. But the restaurant I had lunch at had postcards for a number of “Gentlemen’s Club”s at the door. Let’s just say I am more used to seeing brochures for Leukemia “Team in Training” at such places.
There’s dust. Lots of it. Concrete and new construction commingles uncomfortably with rundown old buildings. There’s a statue of Lincoln in a roundabout, the largest one I’ve seen outside of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. The Banamex in that square is the only bank where you can pay your visa fee. Imbibing monopoly economics lessons brilliantly, they charge $150 for a $131 visa fee.
The area outside the US Consulate is a hubbub of activity. The concept of appointments and time is long forgotten as people just jostle to get in line. Someone with a noon appointment can show up by 9 AM and be done before people who have earlier appointments.
As expected, there’s a host of small businesses that have sprung up to cater to the hundreds who walk through the halls of this in-demand institution. A dozen small shops sell “visa photos”, and provide form-filling services et al. A shanty next to the US Consulate offers to hold bags for the princely sum of $3. This is a boon since the Consulate won’t allow phones or electronics inside. But sharks lurk. Someone in line with me (whose cellphone refused to understand ‘roaming’) paid $5 per minute for an emergency call to his lawyer in the US.
No passport on me - it’s in processing at the Consulate for next-day pickup. No car as I walked across the border (it’s less time-consuming and there are less checks). What’s a bored, forced tourist to do in the birthplace of the Caesar salad?
The local mall provided for some entertainment and insight into Mexican consumption. (So many jewelry shops!). The local theater ran latest Hollywood films in English and Espanol. For me and another kindred soul in a similar soup, it came down to watching films I’d already seen or Fuerza G! in Spanish. Luckily we found Mummies: Secrets of the Pharaoh running (again in Spanish) in an IMAX theater nearby. Feeling particularly adventurous, 35 minutes of sarcophaguses, Ramses and British archaeologists it was. In Spanish.
The next day wasn’t very different. But it was time to pick up my passport and the hour of departure was near. Resignedly, more lines and a gruff border post were negotiated. Unlike that fateful journey across the seven seas seven years ago, this time there was not as much a sense of excitement as a sense of weary relief.
When you cross the US-Mexico border some 40-odd miles south of San Diego, the world changes. As you make a leap from the first world to the third something vital is different and you know it immediately. This manifests itself differently in different places. In Tijuana, it struck me forcefully at the Starbucks (two blocks from the US Consulate). My idea of Starbucks has evolved to that of a place with chatty tourists, solo wi-fi warriors, stray copies of The Stranger and monotonous iPod white earbuds. However, this place was buzzing with well-dressed PYTs hobnobbing with like-looking others, male and female. The vibe was more Paris cafe than border huckster and proved that there’s more to this place than met the eye.