Rick Steves Talks Up Tijuana

In a recent syndicated column, European travel guru Rick Steves explains why Tijuana is a worthy travel destination. He admits that, at first, he was down on the border city because of its reputation, but had never visited until recently.

So what did the author and travel show host with the unlikely voice (“he sounds like my Grandmother” a friend once told me) think of life on the other side of the wire? Well, it is definitely not Tuscany: “Bars that feel like saloons come with cheap prostitutes wearing down their stiletto heels at the doors.”

But Steves notes that things were not as raw as he expected: “With this thriving economy comes a thriving culture: music, arts, and an impressive cultural center. The city, while architecturally dilapidated, is extremely clean. The streets were free of litter.” It seems that, despite the recent cartel shootouts, the local government seems to be delivering on its promise to spiff up Tijuana. Sure, the city has gained economically from rubbing against the US, but it is still on the outside looking over the fence. As Steves point out though, there is far more than cheap prescriptions and free flowing agave-based alcohol to this border town.

Mexican Border Cities Becoming More Dangerous

The US State Department has added the border town of Nogales to its growing list of Mexican cities that are becoming more dangerous because of violence. Drug cartels have been clashing in an attempt to gain control of lucrative smuggling routes. Daylight firefights have taken place in major border cities like Juarez and Tijuana.

More than 1,000 people have been killed as a result of the fighting this year in Juarez alone.

Cartels have also clashed with the Mexican police and army. These shootouts resemble war combat more than they do gang shootings. Both sides are armed with automatic weapons, and cartels are deploying grenades and rocket launchers. Some of these battles have taken place near popular shopping areas, putting the general public in the line of fire. Thus far, the State Department warning has not stemmed the flow at the Nogales border crossing. According to customs officials, there are more than 40,000 per day crossing into Nogales from Arizona. That’s about average for this time of year. Perhaps people just don’t take the warnings seriously. Meanwhile, Mexican officials are trying to get the cartel problem under control by deploying army units to the area.

Gnome bandit reignites French-German hostilities

The French and the Germans have a long, complicated diplomatic history. Aside from the fierce hostilities that took place during World War I and World War II, the two countries frequently bicker over disputed boundaries, in particular the Alsace-Lorraine region. Though tensions have cooled noticeably in recent years, it looks as though a new “international incident” involving garden gnomes (?!) is once again stirring tensions.

According to Metro UK, a sneaky gentleman from France has been charged with stealing around 170 of the statues on both sides of the French-German border. Although the motivation for the crime has puzzled French authorities, some have speculated that it may be part of the work of a shadowy organization known as the Garden Gnome Liberation Front. At the very least, it seems to be only one in a long string of gnome-targeted attacks.

Could this be part of some vast international gnome conspiracy to topple the world order? I don’t think we’ll ever know for sure, though I have my suspicions that Travelocity’s annoying gnome mascot (or at least a clever marketing department) is somehow involved. Stay tuned.

Washington state issues enhanced licenses for border crossings

Border crossings seem to be on my mind this week. For those of you lucky enough to be residents of Washington state (like myself), you are now able to surpass all the identification hullabaloo when crossing up to Canada.

Last year Washington governor Chris Gregoire, in an effort to maintain travel and cultural ties with British Columbia, signed a law launching a pilot program between the state and the Department of Homeland Security. As of this month, the Washington State Department of Licensing is now issuing enhanced driver’s licenses, which are equipped with radio frequency identification technology and therefore approved by the DHS for crossing back and forth over the US Canadian land border. Kiss those border-induced identification fears goodbye.

Washington drivers have to provide a social security number, proofs of residency and citizenship and undergo an interview with Department of Licensing staff. But at $40, the enhanced license costs less than half of the price of a U.S. passport. So keep your fingers crossed, hope that the pilot program works and maybe one day soon enhanced driver’s licenses will be coming to a Department of Licensing near you.