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Seeing Tijuana, Mexico, the way the locals do

Seeing Tijuana, Mexico, the way the locals do

Jason Thomas Fritz - Participants in a Turista Libre tour group form a roller-rink version of a conga line while skating at Patines de Plata, or Silver Skates, in Tijuana, Mexico.

I’m feeling a little ridiculous standing here in my ’70s-era hotpants and ironic sweatband, shivering in front of a roller-skating rink on the east side of Tijuana. What business does a gringa like me have here, miles away from downtown’s erstwhile tourist street, Avenida Revolucion, dressed like a reject from a Jane Fonda workout video?

Luckily, I’m not alone. About three dozen other preposterously dressed Americans, all in their 20s and 30s, come spilling out the door of the bus behind me — the women in leotards and legwarmers, the men in track shorts with striped athletic socks stretched over tattooed calves.


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Snow statistics come from www.onthesnow.com and from the individual resorts; distance and drive time estimates are from Google Maps; lift ticket prices are per day.

The last one off the bus is a handsome blond in red short-shorts and a silver lamé jacket. He is our tour guide, Derrik Chinn, a blue-eyed 30-year-old former journalist from Ohio who now makes his living showing groups of curious gringos like us how to experience Tijuana as the Tijuanenses do, with trips to the local water park, a lucha libre (Mexican wrestling) match or, in our case, to the Patines de Plata roller rink, where every Friday is retro night.

Chinn, who calls his business Turista Libre, motions for the entrance and yells, “¡Turistas, vamos!” We follow him inside, where Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It” blasts over the stereo system and a disco ball rains its polka-dot shimmer onto the few dozen teenagers circling the rink, some bashfully holding hands in nervous anticipation of the couples’ skate. I give the place a quick scan. No sign of narco henchmen, so I beat a quick path to the skate-rental counter, lace up my size ocho quads and join my bespandexed compatriots out in the rink.

After two laps, I’m already wearing a grin. Why did I wait so long to do this? See, I’m one of those people who has lived in San Diego for years and never given a second thought to Tijuana, even though the Mexican town is only 20 minutes from my apartment. TJ is for tequila-chugging spring breakers and girls gone wild, I thought, and even they stopped going on account of the violence between cops and drug cartels that left hundreds dead at its 2008 peak. In fact, we’re all bucking a State Department travel warning to be here tonight, but at this moment, nobody seems too concerned.

“If anything is going to happen to you in Tijuana, it’s the same thing that’s going to happen to you in Paris or Beijing,” Chinn tells me, pointing out how much the violence has abated. “Tijuana now is like New York in the ’80s. Te tienes que poner trucha. It means you have to be smart about it, be savvy. You have to be a savvy urbanist to enjoy your experience in Tijuana.”

Urbanist is an apt description of the people I’m meeting on tonight’s tour. The woman in the hot-pink leggings is a hip-looking librarian; the velour-tracksuit guy is an architect; the girls in the matching French-cut leotards are industrial designers; and others are photographers, urban farmers, writers and grad students from north of the border. Frat boys riding a Cuervo buzz are conspicuously MIA.

Many in the group aren’t gringos at all but local Tijuanenses curious to rediscover their city through Chinn’s eyes, which makes Turista Libre one of those rare tourism enterprises that manages to subvert the hoary dialectic of local and outsider. Those kinds of divisions seem to dissolve pretty quickly when the roller-rink DJ plays “Thriller.”

Published Saturday, December 17, 2011 8:33 AM by Zinnia Q.


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