I have virtually memorized every mile of coastline from Monterey to San Diego. But upon reaching the Mexican-American border, I felt lost.
In addition, I had to turn my iPhone off to avoid incurring extra charges. As a result, I had no map and no sense of direction. I couldn’t tell where north was or even what coast I was looking at.
I was assured the vast expanse of water and darker shade of sand was the Pacific, but in my disorientation I couldn’t be too sure.
It was a sobering moment for my 23 birthday, being in a place I always wanted to go: where my mother, a Mexican, grew up.
I had visited Tijuana a few times growing up but I had never gotten past that. I’ve traveled all over the coastline of British Columbia in Canada, and grew accustomed to it. Mexico was different.
Different in the sense of a pilgrimage, or paying homage to a place where as a first-generation United States citizen, I felt like I half-belonged.
The solemness and disorientation dissolved when my girlfriend’s family and I stopped at a small town called Puerto Nuevo off the main highway, about 20 minutes south of Rosarito.
The town was full of restaurants with outside agents competing for tourists’ money, trying to lure them in. After dodging a few of them, we made our way to the restaurant my girlfriend’s family usually stops at to eat.
It was a big, orange-colored building that towered over most of the others and gave a gorgeous south western view of the Pacific Ocean.
We ordered the house special: some whole-cooked lobsters with salad, beans, rice and tortillas and agua de tamarindo, my drink of choice.
The starter, some crispy tortilla chips and fresh salsa, was a treat I’ve been craving since I was last in Mexico more than 12 years ago.
“I miss this,” I thought, as a guitar trio showed up singing folk songs my mother used to sing to me as a child.
After the delectable meal, we continued south to a small tourist town an hour away called La Bufadora, which featured a natural geyser-like phenomena where the tide comes in and sprays water dozens of feet in the air, dazzling onlookers while soaking them.
It was around 7:30 p.m. when we arrived, so the sun had already set and the ocean spray shot up and shone among the stars, which I noticed looked exactly the same as they did back in the middle-of-nowhere home in Paso Robles, Calif.
It was an exotic place, but with the same blanket of celestial bodies I was still used to. “Yup, I’m still on Earth,” I thought.
It was the furthest south I had ever been.
But it won’t be the last, I told myself as we wound our way back up the road and into Tijuana, to the border where I had to cross by foot with my passport.
The day before we went to Tijuana for the day, exploring parts of the city, all different to me from the last time I was there more than a decade ago.
We went to two museums that showcased Baja California’s history in an authentic fashion with real artifacts preserved and on display.
It was hot and dusty with all the cars buzzing about like angry wasps, disorganized and chaotic as the streets rarely had lanes to separate the cars.
When it was time to cross the day before my expedition south in Tijuana, as aforementioned, I had to cross by foot. The line to get into the U.S. was very long and winding. I estimated about a few hundred people were trying to enter or re-enter the country by foot.
I was no different. I had heard of long lines in Tijuana or in other cities along the 1,200-mile border before, but I hadn’t expected it to be like that. There were homeless beggars and desperate vendors trying to sell off goods to people.
Without a dime between us, my girlfriend and I watched in agony as trucks of fresh $1 churros were selling by the bundle.
After two hours standing in line, we finally arrived at la frontera (spanish for “the border”). We crossed with ease, but it was a long and dusty line.
“I’ll be back,” I told myself. Next time with a little more money and a map.