Another day in Mexico

Caroline Walsh
9 min readDec 30, 2023

Or to be fair, mostly Tijuana.

“Hey! I got my appointment in Otay Mesa tomorrow at 11:30am. Want to hang out in Mexico?”

I messaged my friend, Tina, who lives in Baja. I was excited to finally have the application for global entry approved and the interview appointment on the books. Tina had readily shared with me an app that alerts you to canceled appointments, so instead of waiting until September 2024, I had a spot the next day.

“Great time to have an appointment!” She repiled. “Yeah! Let’s do it.”

I drove down to the interview site the next day, the late morning appointment time meant I missed rush hour traffic and still had a day ahead of me afterwards. Parking was easy, it was a safe enough area, and the agents working the entry and desks were pretty pleasant. I got called to the counter, handed over my passport, and the process began.

“Be sure you put your middle name on your airline tickets.”

I could barely hear him, “I’m sorry, what was the question?” I asked.

“When you get airline tickets, put your middle name.”

“Oh, ok will do,” I replied

Apparently a comment lacking my middle name on airline tickets was noted in whatever records they were looking at based on my passport information. I probably didn’t put my middle name down on most ticket purchases.

“Ah, so you worked for these federal government agencies?” he asked.

“Yes,” I responded, “I didn’t know you could see that.” Going through customs, I had always been nervous to drop that information. Not knowing what they knew made me feel more awkward and not want to say it or mention anything. I didn’t want to seem like I expected a favor or to be let through right away. It’s not like it was current employment. But now that I realized it was in there, I wondered what these agent thought the last few years as I crossed back into the US from Baja or elsewhere, all surfed out and and mess, oblivious I was on the record as being part of the diplomatic scene.

We chatted a little more, since I mentioned I was a student and not working full time at the moment. CBP officers were usually curious about the GI Bill and how I got it from being in the Coast Guard, since the rest of homeland security weren’t qualified for GI Bill. It did seem a little unfair.

I was on the interview schedule for an hour and after I explained my PhD and dissertation topic, answering, “What will you do with it?” with the normal, “Still working on that…”, we were at about 25 minutes total. He explained how I would receive the card.

“Any questions?” He asked.

“Do you have anywhere you recommend or don’t recommend parking while I go into Mexico for the rest of the day?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter,” he said, “all this parking is cartel owned. It’s all about equal.”

Photo by Greg Bulla on Unsplash

With that easy process and conversation, I was off to park about 100 yards away in the lot that looked most likely to take credit cards. And then, the Mexico experience began.

I hadn’t been down to Baja at all last year and was happy to reunite with some chaos. Traveling to Europe had been too peaceful. I walked through the pedestrian crossing into Mexico. It was mostly sidewalk with one open building you walked through. In the room with the guiding posts was a giant scanner machine, probably donated by the US to Mexico, that was pushed to the side, turned off, and roped off. Definitely not in use today. As usual, strolled into Mexico unimpeded.

I texted Tina, “I’m in.” She had already dropped a pin where she was parked before I crossed over. I looked again at the location on my screen, knowing I would walk south, then take a right at the main road. I looked around at the sidewalks, taxi line, and streets and then back down at my phone. “I have no idea how to get there…these signs point to a freeway entrance…”

“Wait, I think I could get there.” I texted. I showed a kind taxi driver the location, hoping he might just drop me off 2 minutes away, and instead, he pointed at the plaza that had a walk through in the middle. “El otro lado.”

I walked over, but could not find Tina. We were right in the middle of all the lines to and from the US, so driving and U-turning was not always an option. “I found another spot,” she said. “Ok,” I replied. “I saw that sketchy alley near where you are parked on my way over. I’ll walk down it instead of by the freeway. Don’t move…if you can drive into it, meet me.”

I walked back through the plaza, past the kind taxi driver and down into the sketchy alley, which actually wasn’t sketchy, it was just empty because there was a federal building entrance it in. At the end of the alley was a main road. Cars speeding past, no cross walk, no side walks. Fuck. I hope I don’t have to cross this. I looked left, saw a line of taxis Tina had mentioned, squinted, and there she was at the end of the line, on the same side of the street I was already on. Yes. I walked down the sidewalk that did exist on this side. I had to cross a one-way street with cars coming out from behind a turn. I stepped in cautiously, trying to see around the curve, and a man on the other side waves me to run, so I did. “Correle.” I made it. Thanks.

I got to her car and it was now time to navigate Tijuana chaos by car and get into the north and south roads of Baja. If I hadn’t found her within about 30–45 minutes and my phone had started to run out of battery, I would have just went back over to the US and tried again another day. There was almost no way to coordinate with neither of us knowing what was on the other side and what could be walked to versus driven to. Our initial plan based on maps to “meet at the Oxxo” had been almost immediately scrapped.

We put in La Fonda beach as our destination. I had good memories at that spot and knew the restaurant and view would be a nice way to recover. Plus, the dogs could get out and run the beach and get their stress out.

A diet coke and Baja-priced salmon dinner later, and we were good. The area was just slightly less expensive than the US in all regards. Tacos in Baja were $1-2 instead of the US $4-6, a nice dinner was $20 instead of $35, and rent was $1800 instead of $2200.

Someone had started their beach art during what was supposed to have been low tide, but by the time we finished eating, it was completely washed away. Waves were 10–12 feet and were leaving a constant high tide at this spot. We found the steps down to the beach and let the dogs run, a little cautious with the big waves coming in and nearly covering the beach. The pups found a little dog friend to chase with and before the sun set, we walked back up. This time, a leisurely drive to her place. Half-built high rises became shadowed in the sunset. At her exit, it took a mere 2–3 loops and turns to get in the right direction to enter the condo’s driveway. We were there.

Toll road

Our evening was nice, the usual friend stuff of catching up, showing me around her apartment, and letting me know what was up with her neighbors. In usual Baja Mexico fashion, the apartment elevator had face recognition cameras, but the staircase was entirely unmonitored. I stayed the night, wondered if I should watch the rest of Narcos, and woke up to a nice quiet morning.

We had a slow morning, coffee, chatting, reading, watching the waves. Then, it was time to get to Tijuana to get back across. I had a trip to pack for and she had another friend coming down for the weekend. We coordinated that she would get in the Sentri line and drop me off to walk over as a pedestrian, since my global entry was approved, but I did not yet have a card.

“Sabes si hay una por pasaportes EEUU?” The pedestrian line was wrapping around the block. There were no signs to indicate any difference in lines if you were a US citizen. So I waited, the line moving 10 or so feet every 10 minutes. I spend about 30 minutes wondering if I really needed to wait in this line, but not wanting to ask anyone who did have to wait here, that would sound pretty entitled. I finally decided to ask, because I just did not want to spend 2–3 hours in line if it wasn’t needed. I turned to the people behind me and asked if they knew if there were two lines. “Creo que sola una.” Dang.

I watched people go to the left of the long line, as if going to another line, but I didn’t know what they were doing. Some might have been going to work, others maybe meeting friends or family in line…or were they going to the US citizen line...? I wasn’t certain enough to walk to the left and lose my spot. I would just wait. When I finally got a visual of the line towards the crossing we were all trying to get to, I saw there was space for two lines, but one remained, the other, weirdly to the right, not the left, was blocked off. Someone painted the ceiling piece black, from red.

I’m glad I waited because the people behind me were right, there was only one line. I don’t know where the people who had been pushing past to the left had been going. It was a long wait, maybe 2–3 hours. The baby behind me was not fussing and neither were the kids in front of me, so I stayed cool and admired the art, glad I was getting closer and at least not 2 blocks away anymore.

Border crossing art work…

When we got closer to the building where the agents were located to ask you what you were doing, I saw a sign, the first sign that would organize anything, it said “Fast” and “Sentri.” I knew I wasn’t Sentri, but maybe with the US passport, I was “Fast.” I left the line, feeling safe I could return to my spot, talked to the agent, and sadly returned to line. I don’t know what “fast” meant, but it was not for me. It was almost over anyways, so not a big loss. I got to the front, walked to the agent who asked me where I was going, but not what I was doing. I responded, now knowing that my career history was likely on his screen, hopefully provoking no further questions, and the experience was over.

Anti-climatic. I did have to find Tina again, this time on the US side, since she drove over in about 10 minutes to my 2+ hours. We texted and she was off getting lunch nearby. I walked to my car, drove over and met up with her. She apologized for the experience, as if it was her fault. But I had done this before and Otay Mesa has never given me an easy pass in the car. This pedestrian experience was long, but easy, considering that one time I dropped a friend off at the Tijuana airport at 4am and drove in circles for an hour, trying to find the Otay Mesa “ready lane,” with almost no signs and the GPS not adding up. I drove in circles for so long, getting closer to doing it right each time, that when my friend texted that their flight was canceled, I was still in Mexico to pick them up.

Tina and I agreed that now we knew exactly where to meet and how to coordinate for the next time that I would visit, for which we would never do it this way again :)



Caroline Walsh

Former CIA Analyst and Coastie. PhD Student. Author of Fairly Smooth Operator: My life occasionally at the tip of the spear, available now!