From a Stretch Limo to a Tijuana Taxi
Oh, the changing fortunes of traveling musicians. One minute Donald Trump’s white stretch limo is shuttling you silently into New York City in garish and slightly embarrassing style with a full refrigerator of drinks and hors d’oeuvres and the next moment you’re in a tin can of a taxi, held together with bungee cords, wire ties and superglue, hurtling through the streets of Tijuana in one gut wrenching swerve after another. I’m not sure if sitting in the business class section of the Sea Cat ferry from Tallin to Helsinki getting tossed from side to side by the rough waters of the Baltic Sea are any better however. It’s just a more European version. The sea hostesses were considerately handing out sick bags to any needy passengers while kindly informing them that it was “going to get a bit worse”. Typical European understatement. This is a bit like the doctor informing you that ”this is going to hurt us a little bit”. But I’m getting ahead of myself. The long, slightly perilous and at times even comical journey from Los Angeles to Oslo was an adventure worthy of an S.J. Perelman travelogue. I am not being dismissive of or minimizing the incredibly sad events that necessitated such a journey as it certainly was not one I would have freely elected to undertake in less stressful times. But we had a tour that we were committed to doing.
My drum tech, Jay Rubin, and I left around midnight on Thursday Sept 13th just 2 days after the hideous U.S. terrorist attacks in an effort to avail ourselves of one of the last possible opportunities to get out of the US and to Europe before all borders were completely closed. Canada’s border was completely shut and Mexico’s border crossing was erratically going up and down like Jay’s trousers in an East European “hospitality bar”. Leaving L.A. like spies in the night and driving ourselves down to San Clemente, where we picked up Tony X, our driver for the remainder of the trip and returner of our rental vehicle, which was not permitted inside Mexico, we contemplated the journey ahead.
Arriving at Tony the Shark’s home in the middle of the night we awakened him from peaceful sleep. We noted a very odd phenomenon occurring however as we approached his house. In this quiet suburban neighborhood there were women, on their own and in groups of two’s and three’s, jogging or power walking. Young to very old and no men whatsoever. Now if this were 6 or 7am you could explain this away as America waking up and getting fit and ready for the day, but it was the middle of the night! The Stepford Wives weren’t any stranger than this although they were much better dressed. Leaving the surreal suburbia of San Clemente for the even more surreal climate of Tijuana, we continued southwards.
Approaching the outskirts of the Mexican border we were confronted with an ungodly traffic backup which was not completely unexpected, as we knew many US citizens who absolutely had to travel might be considering this option as well. The first sign of things to come occurred as we approached the border driving in the left hand lane of traffic, whereupon we saw the first and only sign announcing that 200 feet ahead is the LAST EXIT for US citizens wishing to drop off people going into Mexico. Of course we missed it because we couldn’t get across 5 lanes of cars in 200 feet. Thinking there might be one more hidden opportunity before the border we were forced to continue. We finally managed to pull over to a customs section where there were Mexican policemen and other officials doing very little, which was disconcerting considering the volume of traffic and the events of the previous two days. They really didn’t seem at all interested in why we were traveling or what we were carrying in the car. Through a series of broken translations, pidgin English, appalling Spanish and hand gestures we managed to elicit enough information from them to irrefutably confirm the fact that we had indeed missed the last exit and Swiss Tony would now have to drive across the border and wait in line, which the policemen conservatively estimated at 3-4 hours, to get back into the USA. Tony Bones then became VERY PISSED OFF.
Obviously this was not part of our agreement and he turned beet red, started swearing profusely (fortunately in English) so much so I thought we might land in a Tijuana jail. As he was jumping up and down, kicking the tires and plotting how he might be able to back up the car on the soft shoulder to the US side, the convivial polizi was directing Jay and I to the nearest taxi stand. Calling the vehicle we stepped into a taxi would be like calling George Bush Jr. a grammarian. We rattled, banged and careened headlong through the streets of Tijuana with little regard for traffic, red lights or luckless pedestrians. Screeching into Tijuana airport we were met with an army of hustlers and “baggage” handlers. Once inside the terminal it became glaringly apparent that the events of the previous days might as well not have occurred, for the complete lack of security in evidence. Jay and I managed to get through Immigration without even producing our passports by virtue of the fact that there was no one there. Apparently it was time for Mr. Immigration Man’s coffee break as his desk was totally deserted and people were sailing right by and proceeding to the carry on baggage x-ray machine. Security might as well been having a coffee break too for the amount of attention that they were paying to people’s carry on items. But the most alarming was yet to come. After about 20 minutes of trying to place an overseas call to let the English side know that we had made it at least this far, I gave up. Telepathic communication or even string and a tin can would have been more effective. We finally sat down in the Tijuana International Airport Coffee Shop, which also seemed to double as some sort of gambling casino/ bookie joint where, throwing caution to the wind, I ordered some breakfast.
As we had been informed by the Aero Mexico check in personnel that there would be no meal service on the 3 ½ hour flight to Mexico City I thought it a good idea to have something now as we hadn’t eaten since the night before. Sometimes you tend to forget, living so close to the border, that Mexico is not just another country but an entirely different way of food preparation and handling. Wisely, Jay opted to fast, but I rather unwisely decided eggs and ham sounded nice. The consequence of that decision was rather long lasting and now fills me with dread whenever I see these two perishables living together on one plate.
While I was enjoying this Mexican delicacy Jay wandered off to have a look around the shops, or as it turned out, the shop. He came back in a highly agitated state demanding that I go over myself and have a look. Inside this quaint little gift shop was the usual tourist bric-a-brac, travel sundries and a lovely collection of knives, one or two of which would have done an excellent job of gutting fish. All duty free of course. Alarming as this was, much more worrying was the fact that we were beyond the last checkpoint. From here it was a mere 50 feet to the gate and straight on to the plane with your duty free purchases. Judging from the flimsiness of the cockpit door on our Aero Mexico flight, I think the average child would find it harder to get into our pantry through the slatted accordion divider than this poor excuse for security. Nevertheless we boarded the flight and I’m happy to report that nothing happened except Jay’s hunger pains and a general feeling of relief when we landed in Mexico City.
After navigating the delicate intricacies of the so-called Immigration Department and Customs we made our way to British Airways to check in for our evening overseas flight. Fortunately we had a few hours in between flights to straighten out the fairly substantial oversight of the Tijuana Immigration Dept, which as I said before, was on a donut break or something equally important. It turned out both Jay and I entered the country totally illegally, which is quite a reversal of fortunes for our Mexican neighbors! If they want to keep those Americans out of their country they are really going to have to try a little bit harder than this. We managed to get through three major security points without having to produce one shred of evidence as to why we were here or where we were going. As a result we were made to circumnavigate the convoluted intestinal track that comprises the rabbit warren like maze of administrative back offices inside the Mexico City Airport, trying to find the right one which would grant our late and unexpected immigration request without first sending us off to airport jail for review. With this at last accomplished we set off in search of a non toxic dinner for gringos, which proved, I’m happy to say, to be a much better experience than the Tijuana episode. Setting off for the gate we found, yet again, Mexican security for carry on luggage was minimal and largely disinterested, and once inside the departure terminal any evidence of the New York tragedy was largely overshadowed by a local soccer game dominating the televisions.
It was a tremendous relief to finally board the British Airways 747 Jumbo to London. Despite the heightened sense of tension, they displayed some of the nicest, most courteous and comfortable service I have ever experienced in the air, although I cannot compare it to that most illustrious of airborne clubs known as The Mile High Club. I am not a member, although I’ll bet Jay’s dues are fully paid up. The rest of the journey was reasonably peaceful and uneventful although we were required three times to change our flight course, once to avoid American airspace and twice to avoid a nasty hurricane off the coast of Cuba, which did produce some spectacular lightning and one phenomenal pressure drop. Still, it was good to reach Heathrow and the relative calm of England and I went to the cockpit to thank the captain and his crew, who were very gracious but also relieved to have reached home territory without incident.
It was great to see the band and crew the next day when we met at the airport to fly the final leg to Oslo. Just to regain that kind of day to day normalcy, such as it is on the road, is important and I think we all felt it immediately upon seeing one another.