When we left the train [see Part 1], after three days in Mexicali we needed to find the bus station to get the bus to Tijuana. This done, we settled into the night-time run along the Mexican/USA border road.
The bus was the typical Mexican bus, with an interesting notice above each window seat requesting you didn’t store pigs in the webbing that formed the overhead luggage rack. It was OK, apparently, to stick them on the roof rack and there were several goats tied down on top. They were none too keen on the driver’s performance, as they defecated with alarming regularity on each bend, which, depending on which way the bend ran, meant you were safe (and the opposite passenger seats got the lot). On left-hand bends I learned it was better to have the windows closed, despite the heat.
So the ancient vehicle rattled and wobbled along the reasonable road towards Tijuana and the city of San Diego. The front wheels could be seen through the window (when NOT approaching left-hand bends!) as wobbling quite alarmingly. The top of the wheel oscillated at least 4″ on each revolution (though the country was peaceable at this time).
For some reason that seems unclear to me now I was singing quietly to my wife – our favourite song at the time: Leo Sayer’s “When I need you”. The people in front asked that I sing it again, a little louder, and I obliged. Over the roar of the rattly engine and the noise of the tethered goats on the roof I poured out my heart. I finished to tumultuous applause (well, nobody actually got off!) and was regaled with requests for more songs, and I happily obliged. We had a great time and, when I’d finally played out my repertoire, we heard the bellowing voice of Chuck (remember him, the coffee pancake king?).
Chuck wanted to sing, and asked that I sing harmony to his country music renditions. This I was happy to do and the singing lasted until we finally reached Tijuana several hours later. Don Williams would have been proud.
Our plan had been to visit my sister in San Diego – at this time you still needed a visa to enter the USA, so we intended to go to the border and ask for an entry visa…we didn’t think we would have too much of a problem.
That was before Chuck! (Remember him?)
“Hey y’all, where ya goin?” (Or some such heavily accented Americal drawl.)
“Over to see my sister in South San Diego,” we replied…
“No problem, wait there while I get my truck, I’ll take you over…”
This seemed a good idea and we waited, well after midnight in the dirty and hot Tijuana bus station. After half an hour or so back came Chuck. A Chevy pick up truck under his control…and off we went. As we talked we told him our plans and he nodded sagely…
…if only we’d known!
At the border the guard went to the driver’s window and said,
“Y’all American citizens?”
“Sure…these are my buddies, we been down to Ensenada for a few days R&R.”
The border guard looked suspiciously through the window at our tired, dusty and very English looking faces, then strolled round to the passenger side of the truck. “What part of the States do you live in?” (finishing his sentence, and starting ours, with a preposition).
“We’re not American, we’re English,’ we started, but didn’t get far!”
Out came the gun and the orders, “Get out of the ve-hic-le, now!”
The driver was sent on his way, He was an American, therefore could do no wrong. WE were foreigners (aliens, even) and WE were trying to gain illegal entry to the USA. Soon we were fingerprinted, arrested, found guilty, and ensconced in Tijuana jail! We had not been allowed to say a word!
Tijuana jail is NOT a place to spend one’s vacation! I was locked in a cell with sixteen others. There were six concrete “beds”. Although I’m not a giant, I towered over most of the Mexicans (who were, invariably, there for the same reason we were locked up, i.e. attempted illegal entry to the USA) and space was made for me on the bottom of one bank of three beds. I put my rucksack at the “bed” head and leaned on it. Very tired after our long journey and pretty resentful at the way we were “set up” (although I’m sure it wasn’t malicious) and now in jail, awaiting deportation back to Britain!
Feeling sorry for myself in the long night I couldn’t easily sleep. Nor could one of the prisoners on the bed above, whose hand, dimly lit by the single low wattage bulb dangling in the prison centre, slid down the back wall and into the top of my rucksack. Man of peace or not, I was not having this! I took my machete (which had, ridiculously, been allowed in, strapped to the side of my rucksack!) and with the back of the blade hit the offending hand hard enough to draw blood (but luckily without severing any fingers), jumped from my bunk and grasped the terrified thief by the throat. As I said earlier I didn’t understand Spanish, nor he English, but he DID understand every word I meant! Leave my belongings alone!
Next morning I was summoned to the prison governor’s office, along with my wife (who’d had an even worse night, as there were more than forty prisoners in her cell – same size as mine) and, for the first time had an opportunity to voice my version of what had happened. I was allowed a telephone call (a miracle – I remembered my sister’s number!) and soon there was an American lawyer working on our behalf to change the instant conviction.
It took a week, and the intervention of the American consul (a lady whose dog had died that morning) before we were released to the full fanfare of Channel 39 news in San Diego and dozens of other media types all wanting to get our version of events. I was a star for even more than the statutory fifteen minutes that week.
But we were free, legal and looking forward to a more relaxed time in San Diego. This was not to be…next day my sister, keen to show us her adopted city, took us to Balboa Park. I was wearing the tailor-made printed T-shirt reading “I survived Tijuana Jail” (Chris’s idea of a joke!). It was a wonderful place and highlighted by a visit to the Space Centre Museum, where we saw rocks from the moon (though they could have been from the desert) and lots of coverage of the moon landings and other space missions…all very relaxing and enjoyable, until the alarms sounded!
The place was on fire…thousands of people were running crazily (some towards the flames, some away. and the space centre was ablaze! We were guided along with all the other customers, until we reached the exit, where we came under suspicion (not just us, but every non-American) and were guided into a police van and taken back to jail! (Fortunately not Tijuana Jail.)
Here we were questioned about our motive in visiting the Space Centre Museum and had we started the fire? After a while we were allowed to go, though my sister, Chris, was not allowed back into Balboa Park to get her car as it was now a crime scene! So we had no transport and walking is a difficult option in any part of the USA. We had to use taxis for three days.
The Space Centre Museum was totally destroyed.
Ah yes! A relaxing break in California…those were the days.