photos by Derrik Chinn
by Cristina González Madín
What do you call a calafia bus full of gringos who visit the most surreal parts of Tijuana and who take part in our most ordinary activities? Turista libre.
If the mental picture of this seems a little odd, we still have to mention that the fellow who organizes these day-trips is from the United States and lives in Tijuana by choice. Derrik Chinn is twenty-eight years old. Three years ago, he left his apartment in San Diego in order to move to Tijuana. And this journalist has enjoyed living here so much that, like so many who are fed up with the city’s bad press, he decided to do something about it.
“I couldn’t stand to hear all the nasty things that were being said about Tijuana. The place is actually very cool, life here is like nowhere else in the world. A lot of people in the U.S. tell me they’d like to visit but they’re afraid to or they don’t want to put up with the wait at the border or they don’t speak Spanish or, well, you get the idea. Sadly, they don’t care that pretty much everyone here speaks at least some English. There’s no reason to use the culture or the language as an excuse.” he says.
The idea of Turista Libre came to him while he was covering entertainment, nightlife, and restaurants for the San Diego Union-Tribune. Whenever he’d write about Tijuana, he says, he received negative reactions from his editors and his readers. “People in San Diego have stigmatized Tijuana”, says Chinn. “They feel it’s acceptable to badmouth the city without ever knowing it. I started my blog because of that. After about a year it dawned on me that, even if I were to put up a million photos of Tijuana, it would not be as effective as bringing people here and letting them draw their own conclusions. So now I bring the people here. They return home happy and fearless.”
Every month Chinn puts together tours that might include visits to places like swap meets, Tepoznieves, Tacos Salceados, or something special like a Nortec concert. “Sometimes the tour is built around a special event,” he explains, “but other times the tour is just to give the visitors a slice of our daily lives, as when we go to lucha libre or to a Xoloitzcuintles game. Things like lucha libre are so common that people in Tijuana are blasé about them but they make the tourists say ‘wow!’. The tourists really are surprised. You hear them say ‘I thought Tijuana was just Avenida Revolución’ – and Revolución is dead” Chinn points out.
Some of the day-trippers know about Turista Libre because they’re Chinn’s friends. Others are friends of friends who meet Chinn for the first time as they get on a public bus to begin their adventure. More and more, his tourists are coming from the Internet, like the young Texan from La Jolla who decided to make his first visit to Tijuana.
Their common denominator is that they are all young, with curiosity, and are willing to ignore the violent image of the city that is prevalent north of the border. Like Amelia Sandy, a young woman who admits she doesn’t speak any Spanish at all but who has felt completely safe in Tijuana. She’s been on at least four of the Turista Libre outings.
Or like Jason Fritz, who’s doing postgraduate studies in Latin American journalism at San Diego State University. “I think all big cities are going to have problems, but in Tijuana I’ve never felt unsafe. I’ve lived in Baltimore, Maryland, and I don’t think Tijuana is anything like Baltimore. Baltimore makes Tijuana look like San Diego.”
Fritz says that Turista Libre is a unexpected way to see some of the beauties and eccentricities of Tijuana.
Derrik Chinn doesn’t make any money from his Turista Libre events. The tourists all chip in to hire their bus, for example. Right now, each tourist pays for their own transportation, for their food, for whatever they consume. I’d love to make a living from this but I don’t think the tourists should pay for what I’m doing. I really need governmental support from both sides of the border.”
He hopes that Turista Libre will become more popular in the future. He would like to present his project to COTUCO, the local visitors’ bureau. “Turista Libre is not about making money … I don’t know, if it weren’t for tourism, Tijuana wouldn’t exist, but Turista Libre is in a situation where making money, getting money out of the tourists, isn’t the most important thing. What’s important to me is in promoting the city and in demonstrating the value of knowing the city. The money will come later. I’d rather work in Starbucks in order to offer the Turista Libre service for free than to charge the tourists for it.”
The coolest part about Turista Libre, says Chinn, is the mix of people that shows up for the outings. There are people from the United States who haven’t been to Tijuana in years, others who have never crossed the border, also tourists from other countries who are visiting San Diego and locals who take the opportunity to visit places they’ve heard about but have never been to, says Chinn.
The Turistas Libres are a completely random collection of people, says this adopted Tijuanan, and that’s the most interesting aspect. The tourists arrive by ones and twos at their staging point on the Mexican side of the border but by the time the trip is over they’re all friends and leave knowing that they will meet up again in a subsequent Turista Libre outing. “The one thing we have in common is an interest in knowing Tijuana better.”
Such is the magic of this city that Chinn can’t imagine living in the United States. “The bottom line is that I feel more at home here than I do in San Diego.”
Derrik’s Favorites Spots
Mariscos Cholo, a stand on Sixth Street, where a friend of his took him to eat after watching the Mexico-France match in Glorieta Cuauhtémoc. “After finishing my cocktail, I thought ‘if I don’t get sick, this will have been the best food I’ve ever eaten’. And I didn’t get sick.”
Mercado Municipal, where he likes to eat on Sundays. “The food is good and cheap and the place is full of local color.”
Bar La Terraza. Even though it’s good to have something downtown for the locals and by the locals, something not Revolución, “La Sexta” can be tiring. “La Terraza is what La Sexta was before it became LA Sexta. The music is always mellow New Wave and the place just isn’t pretentious.”
Multikulti (formerly the Cine Bujazán). He likes this place because it’s “really great” and it saddens him that it no longer hosts concerts.
CECUT on Sundays. “It’s free on Sundays! But nobody goes then – nobody.”
Originally published by InfoBaja. Republished in translation by kind permission.