Almost killed / Locked Up Abroad. Escape From Mexico…A Country I Love, Part 1 Of 3…
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DISCLAIMER: DO NOT SHOCK YOUR SELF WITH ELECTRICITY OR DO WHAT I DID AT HOME, YOU COULD BE KILLED. I CANNOT STRESS THIS ENOUGH. I UNDERSTAND ELECTRIC CURRENT PROPERTIES AND WAS TAKING MEASURED RISK. AGAIN DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME. I KNOW IT’S BIZARRE THAT I EVEN HAVE TO WRITE THIS. RAWR !!!
It was another beautiful day in San Diego California. Every day is beautiful in San Diego, well that’s not completely true, but for most of the year the weather is fabulous. One of the things that people from Southern California like to do is go south of the border into Mexico / Baja California. I have a great fondness for Mexico always have and I always will. The people, the food, the culture…what’s not to like. Some people say that Baja California does not give you the full Mexican experience, and I agree with that. Comparing Mexico City to Tijuana is a whole different ballgame for sure. For us though, to walk over the border was a fun escape to another world. Today also would be one of those days where I would come close to death but who would have thought. I have been to Mexico many times, before and after this incident…and I will always continue to go. This day though would be one I will never forget.
So on that morning we walked to downtown San Diego to the West Broadway Train Depot, and caught the next trolley for the short ride to San Ysidro. San Ysidro is the end of the Trolley line and also adjacent to the US / Mexico border. When we got off the train everyone would just head en mass to the maze of stairwells and tunnels that take you into Tijuana. Sometimes we would go farther south to other towns like Ensenada where you could get a hotel and all you’re food for the day for 20-30 dollars US. In fact we knew a few Americans who would live in places like Ensenada and come over the border to San Diego every day for work. The reason being that you could live so much cheaper there than in the US. Anyway walking over the border was an easy experience at the time, as immigration did not check our passports leaving the US, only when coming back from Mexico into the US. So no hassles at all…smooth like butter.
So after traversing the maze of tunnels we would come out to a large open square made of granite stone and instantly on the other side of the square we are bombarded with people holding signs to try and get you into there stores selling everything from pharmaceuticals to souvenirs to alcohol “For Cheap”. All the seasoned visitors know that this is not the place to but any cheap goods, they get cheaper the farther you get into Mexico and everything is up for negotiation. You walk away after a bit of interest and they will drop the price often down 75% or to what you are offering. With that said there are a lot of counterfeit goods, just as there are on the streets of New York City. You have to know what to look for in quality so you don’t get taken. Most of you already know this though I’m sure.
After you get through the square, you come to a taxi area that looks like some scene reminiscent of Mumbai, India. Hundreds of cabs and their drivers all vying for your business. Since it’s a short walk to Downtown Tijuana, there is no need to take a cab. Next comes the walk over the footbridge which is a bit sad because there are young children selling things like packs of gum and pulling on your arm as if you did not notice them. Their mothers sit in the crevices of the footbridge watching that there children are persistent. It’s not overwhelming but it gives you a real indication that you are in a whole different world in terms of poverty. The footbridge goes over a large dry aqueduct (like the type you see in movies in LA) and is the real demarcation between the US and Mexico.
After walking down the street southward we come to “The Arch” that welcomes you into Tijuana proper. This is where we come to the main drag which is a left turn into the bustling city, reminiscent of Downtown Istanbul with with a Spaghetti Western flair. This is the main marketplace and you can find just about anything here, again everyone vying for your business and aimed toward the college students or people trying to avoid the official drinking age in the US. Loud music is blaring from the different clubs and bars 24 hours a day…it just never seems to end, kind of like a more lawless version of Las Vegas.
As we stroll we look at all the goods for sale and stop if we find something interesting, but our real aim is the food. Rule #1 always drink sealed bottled water and stay away from anything that contains ice. Bottled beverages are always the way to go, that are kept cold. Avoid ice sold at the street vendors in anything from drinks to shaved ice…I have broken that rule before and did not get sick, but I have seen too many people that have so take it as you wish.
We then arrive at our favorite hole in the wall taco stand. We know it’s great because it is packed as always and the cooks make your food right in front of you either at the bar or in the several booths inside. The food moves quicker than they can sell it, it does not have a chance to sit out in the open for more than a few moments. There is another station where a woman is cooking fresh corn and flour tortilla floutas. The smell is glorious. So as we walk in we grab either a bottled water or a Mexican Fanta made with real cane sugar, in those old style soda bottles with a cap that needs a bottle opener (Or the lighter trick). There is a bottle opener conveniently on the wall right by the cooler. We order the carne asada and carnitas tacos with everything, and tell the waitress to please keep them coming. They come quick and fit perfect in the hand. Topped with melted cheese, red onion, cilantro, and lots of fresh squeezed lime juice. There are two large self serve salsa’s on each table one with salsa verde and the other a roja salsa caliente…do you like it hot or hotter, hmmm choices, choices. Latino music plays in the loud and there are three people just randomly dancing in the small ailes.It is then one realizes that they are immersed in a fabulous culture. It’s heaven Jerry, just heaven!
So after wolfing down as many tacos as possible we ask for la billete and it comes in at just under 20 dollars US. Where can four people eat all the endless fresh taco’s made right in front of you, with water and sodas for under 20 bucks in the US? So after we pay our bill, we head out to wander the streets in search of the unique sights, sounds, and aromas of this amazing country. Sure some of it is a bit camp and touristy, but the deeper you look…the more you find things that you do not need but must have.
As we walk down the boulevard we came to familiar bar, another hole in the wall where there is someone outside trying to convince us into drinking alcohol there. He obviously gets a commission to get takers down for cheap drinks. So as my three friends were into getting some beers at some point. The bids start at 1 dollar US per beer and we haggle down to 50 cents US, and then comes the kicker as always…”The Walkaway”. We notion we’re not interested and as we start to walk away he yells out’ “Let’s make a deal!” As we were piqued with interest, a disheveled looking fella walks out of the bar to us. He is carrying a car battery on his chest slung over his neck and arms with leather straps. Protruding out at length from the car battery’s terminals are two long wires attached to a makeshift connection on the other end to two metal handlebars sawed off and connected, one for each wire. He says to us in broken English, ” If one of you can hold these, one each hand…past red line”, as he points to a dial and voltage meter that has a red line pasted on it…”, then beers 25 cent, if not 75 cent.
Well we all looked at each other to gauge a response, I lit up inside, he did not realize that he had come up against a shark for this type of challenge. Everyone was like no way, forget that…crazy talk! So I asked my mates if they want, I will do it. I wasn’t even going to be having beers. As I said though I had an angle and one caveat, free sodas for me…and they agreed. As soon as we agreed he handed me the handles one for each hand as he began to chuckle and he referred to us now as, “Mis amigos y amigas favoritas”, I had a chuckle as well. It was showtime and my friends were all pleading with me not to do it. I insisted as I said just trust me on this.
So before I took the Pepsi Challenge for 25 cent beers and free sodas, I ask for your patience for a moment as I explain and digress from the matter at hand. Winding back several years earlier, I have a DJ set up always in my flat. My place always has long wires leading to power sources around my space. I would spin vinyl, and as I still do just mix and beat match continuously for hours and hours. I spin everything from Electronic, Dinosaur Rock, Rap, Pop, Metal, Classical, and Alternative as well as all things in between. Right below my old skool wood and fuzz super heavy DJ Coffin, I have a five foot high JBL Bass Rig on wheels for my setup to rest on. The wheels allow my complete setup to move around the house as needed. Down by the wood floor I always have a small matrix of power cords just under the bass rig. One day when I was spinning my bare feet happened to land on the wires and I got a good shock as I had not noticed one of them split. I did notice shortly before that there was some strange noises in the mix as if there was a grounding issue but it came on so gradually, I did not notice till I got shocked. Something happened though I kind of liked the way it felt.
I know some will find this crazy and bat shit but I noticed when I got shocked, the hair would stand up on the back of my neck and I would get goose bumps all over. So like an idiot I did it again and again, until I was standing continuously on the damaged wire. I was not worried about shorting my equipment as the wires fed into a power conditioner that just trips if there is a surge. Yes, rationalization I know, but it felt really good. Over a short period of time I got used to the strength of the voltage and any fear which I initially had faded away. I continued doing it for a few days off and on, and at some point when I moved my rig I swapped out the damaged wire for a new one. I eventually forgot about this experience, until one day at a family cookout someone mentioned how they got shocked and without missing a beat I told everyone what happened to me. The looks I got were epic, it’s as if everyone was looking at a ghost. Until someone broke the silence with some consternation and a laugh…I had never thought to much about it. My family begged me not to do that anymore, but it was still met with some measured laughs.
So here we are at the moment of truth, the man at the bar hands me the two handlebar terminals one in each hand, asks me if I’m, ready. Go for it I egged. He started out with a low voltage turning the dial to 25% of the way to the scratched red line. It then occurred to me that if by mistake he turned it up all the way I could be dead. Putting that out of mind, I just began to meditate a bit and see if I could ride it out. He then went to 50% and I was still fine. I could feel the electricity coursing down my arm and into my head and belly but it was still fine. Then he went to 75% and I had to clench my teeth and I could feel my muscles all over contracting. My arms began to quiver as I gripped the handles but could barely feel them any more, I thought I was going to drop them. Then as everyone on the street was gathering around watching what I was doing, with my mates worried as all heck. They did not look comfortable even though I was doing the heavy lifting and the crowd was cheering me on. Then the man said he was going to red line it and I had to hold for ten seconds, he looked convinced I was going to fail. He slowly raised to the red line in the center and the crowd began to count…Uno, Dos, Tres, Quatro….it was as if time stood still. My teeth began to rattle. cinco, seis, siete…I was definitely at the end of my line, just hoping the handles would not drop, as I said I could no longer feel them but I knew they were hot somehow. Ochooooooooo, Nueeeeeevvveee, Diezzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz, once I realized we were at 10 he began to lower the voltage. I had done it. Everyone was cheering, it was pretty wild. So we went inside the bar and my friends got their 25 cent beers. I was the man of the hour, exhausted, and the fun had not even begun.
We hung around for a few hours while the friends got their drink on. Then we realized there was about one hour till sunset, and decided to walk around the city, even going off the beaten path, which i would later come to realize paradoxically that our luck had run out and fully kicked into gear at the same exact time. So we get back to the beginning of the main drag and we noticed there was another road with vendors that veered of the main road going downhill but it was heading North West, kind of in the direction back towards the border. We decided to wander on down this road as we entered painters light, my favorite time of the day. I noticed the first vendor was a woman who owned a statue store and the front was open like a garage filled with lots of statues mostly religious in nature but there was other things as well. They seemed to be made of cheap plaster but they were still pretty cool. On the cobblestone street in front of us where statues both painted and unpainted, many I noticed where oddly balanced on the top of round stones, and as the wind was picking up they would wobble a bit back and forth. In the moment, I did not think too much of it as we all just were browsing.
Next thing I know, I hear a small crash behind me about fifteen feet back, It then dawned that one of the unpainted statues had fallen over and smashed on the street. We all looked at each other confused and thinking why the hell are these statues set up on round rocks and I felt bad for the woman…next thing we know she starts yelling at me that I owed her, “150 dollar cash”. I tried to reason with her, it was then all of us knew we were being set up. It was quite clear as I had not even come close to that statue. As she began to yell at me in Spanish, which I understood she was yelling at other vendors to come stop me…I said let’s go this is getting crazy. As we were walking away I could see a group of men forming at the top of the street pointing me out and beginning to head down the street after me. Shit was going downhill fast and I could tell they figuratively wanted my head on a platter as they began to scream “Policia, policia!!!”
I had heard of shit like this before and there was no way I was taking the fall for something I did not do. I had also heard of people being thrown in a Mexican jail for stuff like this and it would take a cash bribe to get out. I then looked at my mates and I said quickly and quietly, “I’ll meet you guys at the border, just take the main road back.” I continued “I’m heading for the border on my own, and then we can take this up with customs officials.” It was my only hope as they we’re coming after me. I bolted down a side street and once I did It looked like I had entered a demolition zone, a back street full of rubble, smashed bricks, stray dogs, feral cats, and trash…something that you might see off the beaten path in Beirut. I was scared shitless, and it was then my “Jason Statham caught up in a Liam Neeson Movie” persona kicked in. Adrenaline full on! The street ran parallel to the main road back to the border but it was still a dozen blocks back to the crossing. I dodged and dived around all kinds of obstacles, climbing over fences…it looked like construction was going on as well but there was literally not one person in sight. Ever hear of a back alley in a different country, with no people on it the likes of which someone encounters in a bad dream. Well I had found it.
The gang that were chasing me cut over to that road as well but as I said it was full of obstacles so they were slowed down as well. I thought to myself, although they were coming they were not fast or gaining on me, so as long as i kept up my pace I would make it too the border before them. After a few blocks I ducked below a damaged wall as I waited a few moments, looking around the corner to the road we originated on and as I predicted my mates walked by and I cut back to them thinking maybe they had given up. So I walked up to them again and they looked worried. I told them if they pop up again I would take off (again) and meet them at the border as originally planned. Just as i finished saying that I looked back up the road and they where running, yelling, and now I noticed several of them were carrying guns and waving them in the air. After seeing that I took off again cutting back towards the same road I had been quickly navigating through those obstacles. Now I knew for sure this was definitely not going to end till we at least got to the border. So I soldiered on not knowing if I was going to get out alive.
Slowly but surely I made my way back towards the border. Next thing you know it sounded like firecrackers going off, however when I noticed puffs of dust coming from the sides of the cement walls and the dirt being kicked up, I then realized, holy shit they’re shooting at me. I just kept going with all that I had in the tank as i continued to hear the sound of bullets going by just like something you would see in the movies. This can’t be real I thought, I’m going to fucking die here. So I don’t know if anyone has ever had something like this happen to them before, but I can bet even if you have not, you can imagine what it would be like. Not pleasant…I did not have time to think, I was going on pure instinct at this point. Ducking and diving, surging and backing off for a moment to mark my path, it still seemed they were not gaining on me. I was sure as hell they were still coming though. Luckily the shooting was sporadic and jagged (not constant), and I took advantage of that fact. Not only that they seemed to be bad shots because they were not even getting close. Who knows, they were probably just trying to get me to stop not actually hit me…I could not be sure.
I realized next as I came around a bend that I was only about three blocks from the foot bridge…I had a bad feeling that this was where they were going to cut me off and catch me. I had to stay positive and I can assure you it was not easy. I could not see the gang behind me anymore but I could here them yelling. I made a break back to the main road and when i got to the footbridge I ran faster than I ever have in my life and made it to the main square at the border. I wanted to make my way over to the main stairways to the tunnels and bridges that led over the border to immigration. One great thing that I realized was the square was filled with people, so I stopped running to not stand out…hoping that I would blend in. I still did walk very fast though. When I got to the walkways I stopped to get my bearings and wait for my friends…a few minutes later the mates come around into the square and I yell and wave to them. As they made their way over to me, there was a small moment of hope that this could be over. We, for a moment (prematurely) hug and talk about what just happened. That moment did not last long.
About a minute later the gang came crowding into the square, and this time they had the freaking police with them…communicating on radios as if they were calling out an APB. I could not believe it…this was insane. Again (for the third time) I said to my mates, “I have to go”…yes, they were stunned. So I bolted up the stairs and ran through the tunnels as fast as I could and eventually I came to the straightway where I could see the the US Immigration turn styles but was gutted because their was a frickin’ line. I could imagine the Mexican Police grabbing me before making it through and claiming jurisdiction. So I took a deep breath, opened my passport, and just kept calm in the line about ten deep. Surprisingly the que went quite fast as there were a few lines open at the same time. I finally got to the customs official and he asked me a few questions. I had to weigh instantaneously in my mind saying anything about what had just happened versus just getting back into the country. I could not hear the angry mob anymore and just went for it. I answered the questions truthfully and he let me pass.
When I got outside of the border crossing station in San Ysidro, I walked over to the trolley platform to wait for my group to catch up with me. I was elated, I could not believe I had made it. After about ten minutes they arrived and we all hugged it out. What a mess…so much could have gone terribly wrong and yet being back in my home country…I was overcome with the feeling of safety. It was finally over. I can tell you this, it was the topic of conversation amongst our friends and family for a while.
Since then I have safely gone into Mexico both the Baja Peninsula and the Mexican mainland and would never encourage someone not to go. It was just the luck of the draw on that day in that moment. I can also say I have been in other life defining situations in the US as well as other places in the world. So I’m not singling out Mexico…as I’ve said it is still one of my favorite places in the world. The Mexican people are a wonderful and hospitable culture. I just happened upon an anomaly. It’s fun to be on TV but I can say without hesitance that I would not trade my freedom and safety for a go at an episode of National Geographic “Locked Up Abroad”, and by the way do you think getting shocked for 25 cent beers and free cokes is really worth it? I do.
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