The road trip to Mexico began rough.  I spent the week before departure moving the contents of my apartment into a storage unit, writing a scholarship essay and hastily trying to prepare for the road trip to come.  I would be heading out onto the open road, from Seattle south through Oregon and California and on to Tijuana for a single game.  After the game in Tijuana the plan was to drive back into the US to head east to Phoenix and then turn south through Nogales and deep into the heart of Mexico.  The majority of teams in the Liga Mexicana de Béisbol (LMB) are located along the coast of the Gulf of Mexico, so the itinerary had a simple directive: keep driving south… all the way to Cancún.

The LMB road trip through Mexico

The LMB road trip through Mexico

Leaving Seattle on July 18th, I had to hustle because the LMB season would end on August 15th . The distance from Seattle to Cancun was 3,816 miles and a total of sixteen stadiums stood between me and the end of the journey. Not to mention that eventually I would have to turn around and drive the same route home.

Like usual, my departure took forever.  I kissed my girlfriend Caroline ‘goodbye’ and then proceeded to the apartment I was vacating to put the ‘final touches’ on cleaning it out… which ended up taking about four hours before I was even ready to disembark.

I turned the van out onto I-5 in the early afternoon and made it as far as Fife (near Tacoma) before my hunger got the better of me.  Spending a few minutes in Taco Time couldn’t hurt, right?

One #5 Natural Soft Taco later I was back on the road.  The sun was resting easy in the west as the van passed through Kelso, WA when I had a funny thought: where was my computer bag? It wasn’t in the usual spot, next to me on the passenger seat. This bag not only contained my laptop, but also my passport, about $500 in pesos and all my important paperwork.

I brought the van to a screeching halt on the side of the freeway and frantically dug around the cabin interior but it was nowhere to be found.  Then I realized that the last place I had seen it was at the Taco Time back in Tacoma… two hours behind me but no choice but to go back.

Somewhere around Chehalis, a beat-up old F-250 powered its way beside my van. A girl cranked the passenger window down.  She leaned out and gestured to the tail of my van, “your tail light!”

When I pulled off the freeway the entire tail light assembly was dangling outside of the chassis by a single wire, awkwardly resting on the bumper.  Fortunately, I had a roll of duct tape in the van, which I used to jerry-rig the lights back into place.

The sun had set when I arrived back at the Taco Time and retrieved my bag.  To my delight, the bag was there and the contents intact. The ladies working there were so very nice. They had kept the bag safe in the office and were hoping I would return soon.  Finally, I was able to get back on the road and head south again.  This delay had cost me over four hours; I drove as far as Salem, OR before the need for sleep overcame me and I pulled into a rest stop for the night.

The next morning, I awoke to early morning fog and started up the van. I drove straight through the day, stopping only in Medford, OR and Sacramento for gas.  Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, I discovered that the A/C which had just been repaired before I left Seattle was only pumping out warm air… just my luck, heading to Mexico and I don’t have air conditioning.

Late that night, I finally crossed over the last mountain pass and entered L.A. County, where my cousin Dan Lawson was waiting to let me couch-surf.  The next day, I made the short trip to San Diego where another cousin, Tiffany, would let me crash at her place before I finally crossed into Mexico for the first time.  I made repairs to van’s tail light, purchased car insurance coverage for Mexico and set my cell phone for 2G services (per my T-Mobile carrier).

At that point, crossing into Mexico seemed so intimidating. Tiffany’s house was only three miles from the border. I had made reservations for the night in Tijuana, and the first scheduled baseball game of my LMB journey was that evening. Based on my past experience travelling in Japan, I knew to write down explicit directions to the Bed & Breakfast just in case my GPS and cellphone didn’t stopped working after I crossed the border.  Finally, I got up the gumption to say my good-byes and cross the border.

Unlike my experiences with American borders, the entry to Mexico was simple: I navigated the van through a series of turns, speed bumps and border guards without even stopping.  Finally, I turned a corner and there was a sign suspended above the road “Bienvenidos a México,” and a freeway sign indicating directions to two highways, neither of which were in the instructions I had written down… so I just kept driving forward.
Welcome to Mexico

My first impression of Mexico was that the streets were narrow, the speed limit significantly slower and all the radio stations were in Spanish.  I had been in Mexico less than five minutes and already I was lost.  Fortunately, my phone was still connected to T-Mobile and I was able to get directions to the B&B, accommodations that I had found via the website AirBnB.com.  It was a beautiful home in a beautiful neighborhood, overlooking the fraccinamiento and valley below. Immediately, I was impressed by the security that was taken in that neighborhood.  The carports were all gated and the houses were clearly fitted with alarms.  The neighbors had a guard dog who barked at anything and everybody who passed including me. The husband of the host was there when I arrived at TJ Casa de Diego B&B.

As the time for the game approached, I climbed back into the van and followed my precisely written directions back down the hill to the eastern side of Tijuana to Estadio Gasmart.  Mexico is known for crazy drivers and the city of Tijuana has certainly contributed to that reputation.  Comprised of school buses that treated stoplights like yield signs, riding public transportation must have been quite an experience. Everyone else did stop for red lights but traffic was fast moving and moved across the road seemingly without regard to lanes.

My arrival at the stadium grounds involved trekking up a winding dirt road, Itreally didn’t meet my expectations of where a ballpark would be located. Sure enough though, a parking attendant waited for me at the top.  My Spanish is pretty rudimentary, and through some gesticulation, we were able to discern that the ticket (bolleto) was free but parking was 35 pesos.  Apparently, it was Gasmart employee appreciation night.  I had arrived early and the ballpark was still fairly empty.

Estadio Gasmart is short in stature, and about the size of a minor league ballpark and the entrances are flanked with tall red pillars emblazed with the Tecate Beer logo. My free ticket was good to sit anywhere in the lower portion of the stadium.  Recently renovated, the outer concourse was wide and open to the sun.  Small booths of food vendors lined both sides of the walkway.  I strolled through the concourse perusing the wide variety of vendors and wares.  I encountered the El Florido girls, clad in tight-fitting spandex body suits, and couldn’t resist a photo-op with the ladies and their porcine mascot.

El Florido girls and mascot

El Florido girls and mascot

When the game began, I was surprised to find a former Seattle Mariner: Russell Branyan, starting at first base for the Toros de Tijuana (TJ).  The game against the Sultanes de Monterrey began with Herberto Gonzalez on the mound for the home team.  There was no blood until the top of the 3rd inning when Sergio Perez hit a lively triple and Agustin Murillo walked; with runners at the corners, Luis Alfonso Garcia knocked a double and brought in two RBIs for Monterey.

The Toros answered in the bottom of the inning with four runs: a solo homer by Eloy Guiterez, over the right field fence and into the “Toroland” children’s playground.  As the rally got going, Toros rallied in the bottom of the 3rd on hits by Blake Gailen and Arturo Rodriguez. The score jumped 4-2 for the Toros, as the DJ pumped the crowd with calls for “ruido” and “vamos – hit!” The fans showed their excitement, cheering and spinning matracas, large wooden rattles that spin on a handle while a thin piece of wood scrapes against a gear fastened to the handle. The effect produced seemed similar to a playing card in the spokes of a bicycle, only quite a bit louder. The inning ended for Tijuana with a pop fly from Abel Martinez.

I sat along the first base line (just past the visitor’s dugout), sipping on a large cup of Tecate “frosted” with a deep red paste called “escarcha”.  I expected it to be spicy, but found the taste was a bit bitter instead.  The Toros cheerleaders were doing a routine on the field while the El Florido girls spontaneously joined them, dancing their way out onto the field.

Beer "frosted" with escarcha

Beer “frosted” with escarcha

The mascots for the Toros were hysterical.  In particular, the monkey/gorilla strutted around the sidelines causing the most ruckus.  He molested the visiting players when they were on-deck, by trying to hump them.  His lewd dancing with the cheerleaders elicited boos from the TJ fans.  In response, he mooned the audience in a Club America speedo.  Club America is the Mexican soccer analog to the New York Yankees: a team with a lot of money and a lot of championships. This really irritated the local fans, and they called him a “puto” from the stands.

The Sultanes replied to the Toros in the top of the 4th inning: Ramon Rios tied up the score with a double. With two outs the Sultanes rally 6-4. Heberto Gonzalez replaced Ortiz on the mound for TJ.

Not to be outdone, Tijuana’s Torrero tied it back up in the bottom of the 4th with a double. Energy in the ballpark was really high; Pharell’s “Happy” blasted from the PA system. In the row in front of me an old man started dancing. He swayed back and forth, his arms make short strokes through the air by his sides.  A thrilling play at the plate ended the 4th inning for the Toros, as Torrero tried to slide in.

The 5th and 6th innings belonged to the Toros, scoring two runs each inning, off a homer by Miguel Olivo and some bad pitching by Adrian Guzman of the Sultanes.  The score is now 10-6 for the Toros.

In between the top and bottom of the 5th inning, Arturo Rodriguez receives the Golden Glove trophy.  The ceremony takes place in the infield, with various LMB officials praising Rodriquez; all of it projected on the big screen. Estadio Gasmart is a fairly new stadium, equipped with a nice A/V system. The camera operators flirt with the pretty girls in the audience.  A kiss sounded over the PA and then a startled young lady would find herself pictured on the Jumbo-tron. Some waved shyly; others reveled in the attention as the men in the audience cheered.

Vendors walked through the aisles selling everything from vuvuzelas (small plastic horns that project noisy sounds) to matracas.  I flagged one down and asked to buy a Toros head band. In Spanish he tells me it was diez pesos, but I didn’t understand, so he asked for a dollar instead.  From behind me, a couple of guys interjected letting me know that  $1.00 = 13 pesos)… three pesos higher than the correct price of ten pesos, not a great amount, but enough to make me decide that not to buy. The vendor being rebuffed, walked away grumbling.  I thanked my new friends and told them about my journey.  This being my first game of the LMB and being so close to San Diego, I don’t think they were very impressed buy none-the-less they encouraged me.

A vendor selling matracas

A vendor selling matracas

When the 7th inning stretch rolled around, the Toros were up by 2.  The club band paraded through the concourse.   A few of the fans followed the band, dancing and reveling to the beating drums, blazing horns and rattling matracas.  On the field, the cheerleaders performed another routine.

Scoreless for both sides in the 8th, the Sultanes attempted a rally when Agustin Murillo doubled and then scored off Adan Munoz’s single.  Unfortunately, Humberto Cota ground out to end the game (the bottom frame was unnecessary for the Toros). Final score: 10 – 7.

Toros victorious, the happy crowd flowed out of the stands and onto the concourse.  Night had fallen and only the stadium floodlights and light poles in the parking lot broke through the darkness.  Instead of closing up shop though, the little food booths fired up their grills as people meandered to the far end of the concourse.  In a wide section of the brick walkway, a different band was busy piercing the silence of the night; a tuba, an accordion and several horns embellished the polka-sounding rhythms.  The young people gathered in a large crowd, pairing up to dance with each other.  I enjoyed watching the dance for a while for before I headed back to the van.

Against the odds, I correctly back-tracked across the city of Tijuana, which now laid silent and dark, to the B&B.  Only the guard dog across the street was awake to greet me.  I let myself in quietly. As I lay in bed, in the rented room, I relived my first day in Mexico in my head as sleep crept up upon me.