A newbie Gabacho in Mexico

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Alex Vinson

First Taxi Ride.

I parked my car on the US side of the border as I had no idea what to expect if I drove into Mexico. Will I need a passport? Some kind of international driver’s license? Better to be safe and walk across and scope it out. So I walk through the heavy, iron, bird-cage looking turnstiles and make my way to a cab stand. Yellow cabs, dozens of them, just like in the US.

” ¿A las viejas, amigo?“, the cabbie inquired. I thumb through my pocket dictionary, then think for a brief minute ‘ why would I want to see old ladies and why is he calling me friend as we have never met before?’. Then I answer , in an elevated tone so that he would be sure to understand,

“No, grashus, downtown please”,

I have no idea why we think that English spoken loudly is sure to be understood. It turns out that viejas is a slang term for YOUNG ladies and I, as a lone male, fit the client profile.

“OK caballero“, he says. Now he thinks I’m a cowboy………

I wonder where he is taking me as we traverse several cloverleafs ’round this way and that. The map I picked up at an information kiosk on the US side shows downtown just a few blocks from the border. I’ll bet he is trying to increase the meter by going the long way ( I had seen this trick on TV) then I discover that there is no meter. “What’s this going to cost me anyway?” I ask.


I know its SUNDAY and he is trying to confuse me, “Cuanto dinero?”

” Five bucks, caballero

Whew, he dropped me off downtown and boy was I glad to be out of that cab.

At a Restaurant

I duck into a little restaurant and sit down at a table. The lady behind the old-timey cash register brings me a menu. Holy Moly!, look at those prices! The lady senses my shock and says

“Pesos, señor, no dólares.”

Oh, well, of course. Hey, I knew that, no problem. Problem! I don’t HAVE any pesos. I told her I’d be right back and I stepped back outside.


OK, its Sunday and banks are closed. I walk a bit thinking how silly it was to go to a foreign country without local currency. The cab driver accepted dollars, what’s with that? I spy a line of folks at an ATM and decide to see if my ATM card will work, like it does in the US when I use an ATM from a different bank. The exchange rate at that time was 8.9 something, I round up to ten and figure a thousand pesos for the day would be about right in case I decide to buy some souvenirs. A thousand of anything sure sounds like a lot, though.

The machine accepts my card and my secret code and I select 1000 from the list of amounts and BINGO ! out comes RED bills and PINK bills and GREEN bills, all different sizes. Now what have I done??? It all adds up to a thousand, but what a shock, having seen only green 20’s come out before!

Back to the Restaurant

Now I’m ready to get something to eat. I sit back down and survey the menu. Let’s see…. Huaraches…. that means sandals according to my dictionary…. probably a really tough cut of beef. Gorditas…..fat somethings?…. Nah, I’ll pass. Enchiladas. great, I know what that is, and point to the menu. ” ¿Y para tomar?” the waitress asks, making a motion like drinking from a bottle, the thumb pointing to her mouth. Lets see… I don’t recognize anything. ” ¿Aguas?“, she asks , pointing to a row of giant jars filled with colored liquids lined up along the counter. Jamaica….. not in my dictionary…… Tamarindo…… .not there either… . .Sandia… .watermelon? Now wouldn’t water of watermelon just leave you with wate ? Hmmm… . Café… that’s it! Café please !

So she brings me a styrofoam cup of steaming hot water. This is going to be tougher than I thought. I sit there for awhile trying to figure out what to do next, eventually she drops off a jar of instant Nescafé and a spoon. Nooooow I get it. The enchiladas were like none I had ever seen, made open face on little round deep fried tortillas, but they were quite good just the same.

Getting lost

I wasn’t about to take the cab back to the border so I decided to hoof it. I had misplaced my tourist map so decided to make it back by dead reckoning. I got lost. I found my way by following the increasing numbers of vendors selling Tweety Bird Statues, giant sombreros, cheap necklaces, and kids selling gum. Stuff that a local Mexican would have no use for. Sure enough, that all pointed straight to the border.

The white bus goes downtown

Back to the border for another adventure. This time I discover that there is a “this way that way” bus that, for two dollars, will transport you from the parking lot on the US side to the downtown shopping district and back again some time later. It goes round and round making those two stops only. Cool. So I get on the bus and head downtown. The bus takes the same circuitous route that the taxi did last time. It turns out that between the limited number of crossings over the Tijuana river and the one way streets that is the shortest way one can drive to downtown.

The bus stops in front of Sanborns restaurant on 4th and Revolution. They have changed the street numbers to names since then, I can never remember what the names are. I was hungry by then, the place looked clean, so I went inside and took a table near the front window. American oldies music was playing in the background and I was handed a menu printed in English. This is too easy this time, but I have my dictionary with me just in case. A little kid, maybe 7 or 8 years old wanders into the restaurant and asks me for a quarter. “¿parkay?” I ask, hey this Spanish stuff isn’t so hard.

Between gestures and the dictionary I understand that he is hungry, that tacos are three for a dollar on the street but he is pretty sure he can get one for a quarter. So I gave the kid a quarter. Then I proceed to watch him leave the restaurant, cross the street to the video arcade and drop the quarter into his favorite game. Dang, that kid was good. Next time I’ll tell the little shyster to pull up a chair and order something from the menu. If he’s really hungry then he’ll get fed.

My waitress is pretty cute. I’m thinking that if I don’t try to say something to her then I’ll regret it later. I slowly turn the pages of the dictionary :

” ¿Como esta, señorita ?” I say.

” Bien, gracias y usted. ¿Es un dia bonito, no?” she says at 100 miles an hour. I flip furiously through the dictionary wondering what to do next. She finds that amusing. I actually manage to ask her out for the following Sunday and she accepts.

Today that waitress is my wife.

First date

Ok, the next Sunday arrives. I am wondering what she is going to think about me outside the restaurant. I have a fairly new car, a Nissan Sentra. When I bought it, it was the cheapest new car I could find that had a good dependability rating and I was ashamed to drive it. But its all I have, so here goes. Pants are pressed, shirt is ironed, tie straight, cell phone charged, bought a days worth of car insurance at the border and away we go.

She was where she was supposed to be at the appointed hour, what a relief. She absolutely loved the car. It turns out that Nissan is a very respected brand in Mexico and I had nothing to be ashamed of, why it had no dents, air conditioning and everything she cooed.

We decided to tour Tijuana, no particular destination, just drove around and around and up and down, listening to music and chatting the best we could. Before we knew it was dark and we just kept driving around. Tijuana is a lot bigger than you might expect, about 2 million people. We encountered a beautiful fountain near the Consulate and stopped to throw in a couple of coins and make a wish. Little did we know that at that very fountain I was to propose marriage to her on bended knee.

Fast forward : Over the next several months I visited twice per week and eventually began staying over on weekends.
Fast forward some more.

Blowed Up

One evening I was preparing to take a shower at my girlfriend’s (now my wife) apartment so I lit the hot water heater pilot. I didn’t understand why she turned it off after each use, I assumed it was a cost saving measure. I took my shower and went to bed.

A couple of hours later the neighbors are banging on the door, yelling about something, I didn’t know what (I was not hip to colloquial expressions at that time). Turns out the water meter downstairs had blown up and was spraying scalding hot water everywhere due to me not TURNING OFF the boiler. My wife thought for sure the boiler was going to blow, she grabbed the baby (yes baby!) and ran out into the street with just her night-shirt on. I, still ignorant of the danger, went out to the balcony and turned off the gas. The tank was making some terrible banging noises.

It was a heck of a way to meet the neighbors. We didn’t have any water for a couple of days and my girlfriend was unimpressed, though she married me anyway. The moral of the story is that low cost water heaters DON’T HAVE A THERMOSTAT. This Gringo had never heard of such a thing.

La Quinceñera

We were invited to a neighbor’s 15th birthday/coming out party as Padrinos de Brindis, that is, we were responsible for providing the beverage and toasting glasses. It was quite an affair, lots of tradition, lots of people, kids, music, dancing, eating and drinking. I didn’t know that sparkling cider, for example, would have been an appropriate beverage and I brought several cases of real champagne. After all the toasting the poor señorita was getting kinda loopy, as were the other guests. Oh well, I guess it turned out allright as we have been invited to other functions since then as Padrinos de Brindis !

La Sobadora

My wife insisted on taking our daughter to a Sobadora.

“What’s that?”

Its a señora that cures people.

“Cures people of what?”

Of being afraid, among other things.

“She is sick, not afraid, we should go to the clinic”

No, she isn’t sick from illness, she is sick from being afraid. It’s a spirit that instills fear in little children and the sobadora can cure it.

“How does the spirit know to only infect Mexican kids, we don’t have that problem in California.”

Let’s just go, you don’t understand.

So we wind our way down the hill to a really scummy part of town. We walk between some dilapidated plywood “houses” and knock on the door of the shack in the back. An elderly lady answers the door and motions us in to the single, dark room, an old, dirty couch being the only furnishing. A man who looks like he just finished servicing a car, covered in grease, is sitting on one end of the couch drinking beer. I gathered it’s her husband. My wife explains the problem, the sobadora takes some olive oil from a shelf and with some pomp & circumstance rubs the oil on our daughter’s belly. All done, 50 pesos.

“What a bunch of malarky”, I said to my wife on the way home. “Don’t you know its bad luck to be superstitious!!”

Shut up, everything will be fine.

This morning she says she is taking her to see the sobadora again.

“What the heck for???”

She swallowed some gum, now is “empachada”, which I assume means clogged up some way.

“Why are there no sobadoras at the hospital, look how fast they could cure people of physical and mental ailments, they might even be able to earn more than 50 pesos?”

They don’t believe in sobar at the hospital.

“All those folks with medical education don’t use the services of a sobadora, why do you suppose that is?”

Go on, get to work, you will be late.

50 pesos every so often is a small price to pay for domestic tranquility. If she feels better seeing the sobadora and our daughter feels better because SOMETHING is being done to address her problem, then that is OK with me. I do reserve the right to tease her about it, however. It is a lot cheaper than the goofy practices in the US, like rolfing (which just plain hurts), aroma therapy, shark cartilage diets, herbal cancer cures, bits-of-animals-not-to-be-mentioned libido enhancers and, believe it or not, equine chiropractors. If you have never seen the diagnostics and administration of chiropractic care to a horse, well, I’ll just make that another story.

Las Cartas

My wife went to a card reading fortune teller yesterday, why, I don’t know. I learned long ago not to confuse Aristotlean logic with Female Logic. Anyway, the señora divined my wife’s marital status (not too tough as she was wearing her wedding ring), that there is a man in her life in his 40’s who is either married or divorced (not too many 40 year old males never married), that she is having trouble with a co-worker and the co-worker is trying to get her fired (she has been a homemaker, not working, for a long time), and that she will be going on a short trip (who doesn’t). I ask my wife :

“Why doesn’t she predict the winning lottery numbers?”

“She says that she is not permitted to profit from her ‘gift’ ”

“Why did she charge you 100 pesos then?”

That was the end of the conversation. Now if I can just get her to get rid of that bowl of water she keeps at the front door…..

The water is to ward off ” malas vibras“, supposedly keeps bad vibrations outside the house. Since it is kept near the front door I have a tendency to trip over it so it MAKES more bad vibes than it wards off, in my opinion.

Turkey Day

We combined a traditional American Thanksgiving dinner with our daughter’s birthday party. We held it in the courtyard of our building and invited all the neighbors. Thank goodness for the neighbors. It started out like this :

“What’s a turkey?” asks my wife. I knew right away it was going to be a long couple of days.

Pavo, I tell her.

“Oh, we have that at Christmas, when we don’t make tamales, that is.”

Great, we’ll need salad, mashed potatoes, and a bunch of other stuff.

“And tortillas?”

No dear, we don’t need tortillas.”

“You sure?”


“And we are going to need tables and chairs and candies and a piñata and invitations and sodas and ice and birthday cake and put the stereo outside and hook up a light someway and…” So out go the invitations (we delivered them door to door of course) and hoped some folks would actually show up. One never knows if the neighbors really are OK with us or if they are just being polite in our daily interactions. One neighbor shows up with an 18 pound turkey, a gift from her employer in San Ysidro on the US side, and offers to cook it. Another brings a phone number of a friend who rents tables and chairs. Another offers to help clean the courtyard in preparation. I had the good car as my old one is broken, another señora drove my wife to a place that sells discount piñatas and dulces .

How to string up the piñata? A couple of us guys string a rope from a tree to the iron bars on a neighbor’s window, his window. Put the stereo outside, how to get electricity to it? Several people contribute two and three meter lamp cords, strung them together and a family on the 5th floor dangled the cords from their window down to the courtyard so we could have music and light.

A gal chops veggies to make a salad , another patiently explains to my wife how to light the gas oven, and throughout the day the meal comes together. My wife remarks “We could take all this turkey meat and make tamales, you know…”

There is help setting up the tables and chairs, hauling down all the goodies. About 40 people showed up, mostly kids under 12 years old, running around yelling and screaming and dancing to CriCri and Tatiana. It went very well, all chipped in to clean up afterwards and WE ARE INDEED THANKFUL

12 Grapes at Midnight

As the clock chimed for each of the 12 hours at midnight, welcoming in the New Year, we made a wish and ate a grape. I think I like this tradition as 12 wishes is a pretty good deal: a genie in a lamp gives you three, a coin in a fountain and a falling star only grant one.

I Think We Did Our Vacation All Wrong

Poking along from Tijuana to Guerrero State and back, taking 23 days vacation to make the trip, we

  • Participated in a baptism as Godparents.
  • Bribed a policeman.
  • Watched the Cliff Divers.
  • Climbed a pyramid.
  • Bathed out of a bucket.
  • Started a vegetable stand.
  • Chased down a city bus in our car so a friend could be reunited with her lover.
  • Almost got stuck driving on the bottom of Lake Chapala.
  • Showed my little girl what giraffes and monkeys look like in real life in Guadalajara.
  • Swatted a ton of mosquitos.
  • Got run off the road by a big truck in Sinaloa..
  • Visited a sick great-grandma.
  • Let guys with machine guns search our car, several times.
  • Went to a birthday party where all 200 kids in the colonia were invited.
  • Felt cold,
  • And hot,

And didn’t spend a single minute lounging around a luxury hotel pool sucking down drinks with little paper umbrellas in them. We got it all wrong, I guess.

Back Home

The electronic car alarms sound 24 hours per day, 7 days per week. They are set to maximum sensitivity, a truck passing in the street will set them off. They all sound alike : a chorus of “eeeeeht eeeeeht eeeeht, wooOOOp woooOOp wooOOOp, deeeedo deeedo dee edo, bip bip bip”. The neighbor kids take great delight in bumping the cars to see the lights flash and hear the racket. We say in our house that the Pájaros de la Colonia estan cantando, qué linda (The neighborhood birds are singing, how pretty). The car owners prefer to hear the alarms every so often: if you don’t hear the alarm that means the car is gone!

Truck Parade

Saturday night we were downtown on the famous Revolution Street in Tijuana. We were having coffee in Sanborn’s where my wife and I first met. We could hear a rumbling sound, growing louder and louder, drowning out the music from the discos.

” ¡Qué escándalo !” says one of the waitresses.

” ¡Qué barbaridad !” says another

We all run out to watch. Down the main street comes a parade of semies and trailers, all lit up and horns blaring. Kilometers and kilometers of trucks. This is no wimpy, US style parade: Some trucks rev their motors in such a way that makes the cab dance on the chassis. Rooomp,aaaah,rooomp,aaaah , and many trying to do so in concert. Impromptu drag races break out every so often as the trucks weave in and out across all the lanes. We see our neighbor’s Big Blue Rig and wave to him, he pulls over to the curb and calls out with a giant grin, “¡Subanse !” and we climb aboard to enjoy the rest of the parade inside the Big Blue Rig with the shiny gas tanks. I didn’t see this on the list of must-do cultural activities…way cool though…


Well, I’ve rambled on quite enough by now. I’ve graduated from Newbie status, immigrated my wife and daughter to the US where now THEY get to be the Newbies. ¡Ya toca ti !

Published or Updated on: January 1, 2006 by Alex Vinson © 2008


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