Tales of the Unexpected (the Tijuana edition)

I could spend a week writing about the first 24hours of my journey. It was a catapult into all sorts of emotions, opinions and experiences. To make it manageable and to ensure I don’t spend all my time writing this blog post I want to focus on a few key things that happened. Please excuse the brushing over some of it (and the grammar issues), time at my laptop is limited so, for now a blog on the unexpected things, some brilliant, some… well. Some heart breaking.

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I wake in San Diego.

Me and Karissa (producer of the American Outriders project) drive through this beautiful city. We have bunch. We buy lemonade off a little girl who has a lemonade stand by the side of the road. Yes, that actually happens and yes, the brownie was vegan and gluten free and yes, she was raising money for under privileged Mom’s – welcome to Southern California! San Diego is gorgeous, we walk along the beach, we visit Obama’s favourite presidential hotel and I vow to come back to this city one day.

Before crossing the border, we decide to check out the American side of the wall. Who knew that on the American side of the border there is a massive nature reserve with a big space for San Diego’s equestrienne centre. Beautiful horses line the road and you could easily forget less than 2 miles away people climb a steel fence and run for their lives into these very bushes. It’s bizarre. It’s the beauty of nature clashing up against the messiness of humanity.

We get ready to cross the border. We take the 3miles left of the American highway and drive pass ‘the last exit to the USA’ sign. Me and Karissa were ready to be checked, have our passport stamped, our bags opened and searched through, we brace ourselves as we drive through the labyrinth of concrete that is the border.

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Turn after turn, queues of cars, big instructions printed on big signs… and suddenly…. we are in Mexico.

No bullshit. Not even a rolled down window. Not a glance at our passports. Not even a high five. Crossing the border USA-MEXICO was easier than navigating most terminals in most airports. Unexpected.

It is as if by accident we have ended up in Mexico.

Skip to dinner. By this time I have met Ximena, we hug and kiss like old friends and I know instantly we are going to get on. She is a brilliant woman with a brilliant mind, I am very lucky to be traveling with her – that is for sure. Me, Karissa and her go for dinner. We go to Caesars – birth place of the Caesar Salad. Fact. During the evening we are joined by three of Ximena’s friends – Mariana, Esmeralda and Chantal. Not only are they three brilliant female playwrights but three of the most important playwrights in Tijuana. They are fiercely intelligent, wickedly funny and generous enough to share stories of the hard parts of their practices. All three have practices that are in one way or another engaged in reaching out to communities in Tijuana but maybe that is for another blog… in fact it definitely is. Those brilliant women deserve to be spoken about from Tijuana to the moon. It is a gift to be in their company.

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Three hours later. The 6 of us agree that we would like to see inside one of Tijuana’s infamous strip clubs. Tijuana is known for its problems with prostitution and a lot of it sparks out of strip clubs. Women are not allowed into clubs unaccompanied – but we manage to make our way into the one of the smaller clubs.

The first strip club we go to… well, it’s a bit dark and sleazy but there is nothing out of the normal Hollywood image of a regular strip club. Except one thing – the sheer amount of women. I count 30 women in various stages of undress. We drink beer, we watch the girls dance on the pole or go up to single men and sit next to them and start a conversation with loose hands under the table. There was no doubt these women weren’t just going to dance for these men and that a further transaction was expected. For $20 and the cost of a hotel room you get an hour for anything you want, or so I was told. We leave the club.

Before we know it Esmeralda has managed to get us into a second strip club – the biggest most infamous strip club in Tijuana – Hong Kong, and it was in here that I had a moment, a very rare, very profound moment when you feel something about your fibre changing. You hear, see or experience something that makes you view the world a little differently. I’m just going to say if you shock easily, best skip to the final paragraph.

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We go into the club and get a brief tour – the building  is jet black with flashing club lights. It’s super slick and because of this it doesn’t have the sleazy element of the first bar. It’s like Vegas, right? Wrong. We are invited to sit down to watch a show –  front row of a double sided stage. A girl does a routine similar to the other girls in the last bar. She swings on a hoop and gracefully moves up and down the pole with an agility I will never have this lifetime. I notice men throwing notes or tucking them into her underwear. I thought they would be 10’s or 20’s but no, they are single dollar notes, slapped against her skin. By the end of the routine and unlike in the other club she is completely naked – I’ll be honest and say I wasn’t quite sure where to look. But the music changes, her time is up, she clears the dance floor, a security guard collects her money.

This is where everything changed.

The same security guard gets up and starts covering the dance floor with piles of shaving foam. A ritual that takes about 15minutes – everything about the next hour is choreographed for thrills and anticipation. Two girls come out to the dance floor and they look around 16 years old in their tiny underwear (I later find out both are in their early 20’s). They begin to dance – nothing dissimilar to what we have seen, as expected they then begin to dance with each other. I notice that one of the girls is a little distracted, almost melancholic with a beautiful flawless face. I fixate on this, her distractedness, her distance, finding it hard to shake. Soon their underwear is off and they are beginning to wipe the shaving foam over their bodies while 30 men watch and shout and attempt to hide the bulges in their trousers by putting their hands in their pockets. An unexpected element? When men place the single dollar notes on the women they get to ‘buy’ a feel, and it’s not just a hand down a thigh, it could be both their hands on her breasts or even touching the girl’s clitoris. The room is a frenzy. This carefully choreographed ritual is driving the men wild. A man caught filming is thrown out. Security is tight. The women slip and slide in the foam, touching themselves, allowing men to touch them when they stick a dollar to the shaving foam on their bodies. I can’t quite believe what I am watching and how the men are touching these women.

I would like to say by this point all the women in my group (including myself) had also placed singles on the women’s bodies – with soft gentle playful touches. They invited us to do it, we were taking up seats which could be filled with horny paying men, somehow, in some logic, it felt right. We were part of the transaction and we should pay for it. I can’t even begin to unpick if us placing those singles on those women’s bodies is any different to the men doing it. It’s complicated – nothing about this transaction is simple and it’s about to get a lot more complicated.

The women continue this routine for a while and then…. a sex toy is added into the mix. One girl begins to use the dildo on another. The group of men watching is ever increasing. I never thought witnessing a strip show would involve watching penetration… all of the women in my group are shocked but we order more beer and attempt to play along.  After around 10minutes, one of the girls fetches what I can only describe as a dildo attached to an automatic drill.

Yes, you read that right. A dildo attached to an automatic drill – the kind you would use to put holes in a wall if the wall was made of stone.

The machine is about 2feet long, she holds it like a gun and it needs two hands to operate. She picks it up and points it at the viewers – it thumps into the air. Then with her dancing partner lying on the ground she starts using it on the other girl – by this point there are probably 40 men watching from various angles. The viewers are told that for 10 dollars you can use the drill on her. One man pays $10 to do it, another man haggles her down to $5. They fuck  her with that ‘machine’. We watch. I desperately try not to throw judgmental looks at all those baying men and I try not let the sadness in my gut come out of my eyes. We leave. We go to another bar and drink beer, all of us are a little shell shocked unable to talk about what we just saw. I get to bed at 2am, I have no idea how I feel or what I think but I know I can feel the change in my fibres from witnessing those women and I think about them. Their lives, their choices, their lack of choices and the face of that distracted melancholic looking girl. Who we all later speculate might have been pregnant.

I haven’t processed that experience yet, I know it made me feel futile and sad. I know I saw a very real, very raw part of the world. But as someone said – these clubs don’t exist just here, they exist all over the world. This one was just bigger and shinier and in downtown Tijuana. Interestingly enough not once did I feel unsafe, not for a single second did I feel in danger. I just felt… I don’t know. I don’t know how I felt. Its complicated. What I am realising now is Tijuana is one of the most complicated cities in the Americas. It is where the south butts up against the north. It’s where people come from all over the world to go to get trashed and use prostitutes, it’s where 6 female feminist writers end up in a strip club and spend a lot of dinner the next day questioning every transaction that took place in that 90minutes. Was giving the women money the right thing to do? Was going in there the right thing to do? Even writing this blog post has kept me awake – how to capture it, how to justify it, how to begin to know what to with this new infomation. Well, it’s not new, it’s just lived and there is a big difference in knowning it and seeing it there, right in front of you.

And I still can’t get the face of that distracted melancholic girl out of my mind.

As I said – I could write about this first 24hours for a week. So much I have left unsaid, so much I don’t know how to say. But I want to finish this blog on a different note. During dinner we discussed the difficulties and dangers of living in Tijuana. So after a couple of glasses of wine I ask:

‘You guys have American visas, you all have very successful careers, you could live anywhere if you wanted to… why live in Tijuana?’

And the brilliant Esmeralda looks at me, smiles and without a blink or an inch of cynicism a reply rolls off her tongue ‘Why Tijuana? Because she gave me everything’.

And not for the first time or the last time that night I secretly wipe away a tear and feel thankful for so many things.

So. Thankful.

So much left unsaid, so much I don’t know how to say.

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