“I need to pee again,” I said to Arturo, the man behind the steering wheel.
“Didn’t you just go?”
“It’s not my fault you’re a camel,” I said, defensively. “And anyway, that was over two hours ago, and I drank that huge coffee and a bottle of water. Also, I like to check my hair and lipstick, rather than just rolling out of the car and right into another meeting without a chance to collect myself.”
I’d assumed familiarity with our guide the moment I’d climbed into his behemoth, government-owned Sonora (what they call a Tahoe in Mexico). The first thing I said upon greeting him was, “You were on the wrong side of the street.” He began to explain that he’d moved to the area he thought might be easiest for us to find him, but I interrupted him with a casual, “I’m just fucking with you. We’re good.”
David, who’d taken his seat behind me, leaned forward and gave Arturo a knowing, I hope you know what you’ve signed up for, look. A few minutes later, David thought it prudent to point out, “The more Barb messes with you, the more she likes you.”
It had been over three years since I’d last been in Tijuana. My friends have been going south more and more frequently in recent years – a few had even joined forces to open a gallery, La Tentación, in the bubbling Pasaje Gomez, which, along with nearby Pasaje Revolución and Pasaje Rodriguez, is in the early stages of an art-centric renaissance. I’d heard tales of new murals, new shops, and new galleries, all a level below Avenida Revoluctión. After a year’s worth of reports from friends about the revitalized food scene, and the growth of arts and culture organizations and events south of the border, I finally had to see it all for myself.
Artist Manuel Varrona standing before his mural in Tijuana
My main motivation for going was to research content for a TV show I’m working on about art in the region. That’s where Arturo came in – my Spanish isn’t just rusty, it’s downright dilapidated. And I had no idea where I was going, as I’d lost touch with the happenings on the other side of the fence. My guide was a gift from Baja’s Secretary of Tourism. I wasn’t allowed to keep him, but for two days, he was mine.
I need levity to function. Mirth is my sun and water—without it, I wilt. This is why I cannot bear to be around people who take anything too seriously for too long. I’m the type of person who will, especially if it goes on too long, crack a joke at a funeral. It’s the Irish in me. Unfortunately for poor Arturo -- amiable, polite Arturo – I fixated on him as my outlet for all things droll during my two days of back-to-back meetings with earnest professionals.
“What are you doing there? Who are you texting?” Arturo looked up from his phone to see me walking toward him. He’d been waiting patiently by the car while David and I had been busy touring the pasajes, meeting with artists and gallerists. “Here, let me see.”
“Do not give her your phone,” David warned.
“Is it your office? Are you tapping, ‘Please send help, this woman is insane?’ You should. Tell them I ripped up the itinerary and demanded you take me on a tour of graveyards instead, and that you need direction regarding how to handle the situation.”
Arturo laughed; it was a polite, professional chuckle.
Later in the afternoon, Arturo tried to keep us on schedule by alerting the gentlemen with whom we were meeting at the Tijuana Cultural Center that we had only 15 minutes left before we had to leave for our next engagement. “I’d really love to stay, guys,” I said to the group that had shown me just how vast the center really was (like all of Balboa Park condensed into one building). “But this guy hates you, and so he’s making us leave.” Arturo was about to balk, but I got in a quick, “Just kidding,” before he could.
A lookout point in Ensanada
On the second day, I could tell Arturo was warming to me when we stopped at a lookout point along the coast. David and Arturo were taking photos of the tuna farms in the ocean, when I heard the unmistakable call of a seal. “Did you guys hear that? How cool would it be to see a seal?”
“I see it, it’s right there,” Arturo said, pointing.
“Where?” I craned my neck to follow his finger and strained my eyes to distinguish a seal from the clusters of seaweed and rocks in the water below.
“Right there. I’m surprised you don’t see it,” Arturo said. It was then that I caught the flicker of a smile on his face. David caught it too, I could tell, because as I huffed and turned back toward the car, I could hear both of them laughing. Despite my feigned indignity at being faked out, I was happy to have broken through the businesslike veneer that had previously surrounded our host.
Sculpture by Alfonso Arambula
In Ensenada, we roamed the Wine Museum, which features galleries of wine-related art, and then checked out artist Alfonso Arambula’s giant sculptures at the Tres Valles Winery. When Arturo mentioned our next stop was a tour of the wine making process, I said, “I know how wine is made. Where can I get some heroin?” I could tell by his face that for a moment, he was unsure as to whether or not I was joking – it was brief, but delicious. Still, he got my point, and made a few quick phone calls. While Arturo was busy talking, I tried to conspire with David to steal the car at the next stop (“Just for a minute, come on, it’ll be hilarious”), but then Arturo was off the phone and describing our new destination, Cuatro Cuatros -- a posh, upscale community development nestled between vineyards by the sea.
On the drive back to Tijuana, there was a government checkpoint. “Check it out, I’m going to look suspicious so they give you a hard time,” I said. I made a point to look directly at the officer and then away, as though I had something to hide. The man in uniform approached the window, asked Arturo some questions in Spanish, and peeked behind him into the vehicle. When he let us pass, I said, “See? I told you I’d make him come over – it’s all in the shifty eyes.”
Arturo said, “They always do that.”
When I expressed my disappointment with an exaggerated huff, Arturo didn't look concerned. He just smiled and continued driving.