“Isn’t that dangerous?”

All the way to Mexico, that’s all people asked me. The US customs officer, before I’d even left Halifax, looked at me like I was insane when I said I wasn’t staying in San Diego, but was just planning to meander across the border. (Technically a lie, as I stayed in San Diego the first night, but I have such rotten luck with customs officers that I find it’s best to give them the simplest answer possible, and they’re often confused enough by my vagabond ways.) “You’re going to Mexico?” he asked. “Near the border? By yourself? Don’t you know how dangerous it is down there?”

San Diego
San Diego, from my hostel bedroom window in Gaslamp. If you’re looking for a nice place to stay with surprisingly shoddy internet, the rooms at the HI hostel were actually rather lovely. I miss that bed.

I’ll admit I expected it from xenophobic Americans. (Sorry, America! You’re great! Travel more, okay?) What surprised me was that, as I got closer to the border and found myself the only white girl on a trolley crammed with Mexicans heading home, even they started asking me if I was in my right mind. I’ll point out here that they were busy being super friendly and helpful, helping me manoeuvre my sixteen tonnes of luggage around. But for whatever reason, everyone seems surprised at my decision to live 100km from the notorious border for two months.

It sunk in. I tried as much as possible to remind myself that a lot of travel alerts are xenophobic hooey, and that millions of people live out their lives in northern Baja with no troubles whatsoever. I’ve done a lot of travelling, some of it to places many would consider “dangerous”, and often these places were my favourites. (Sarajevo, with its two million unexploded landmines and its gorgeous wounded beauty, is a notable example.) In all my travels, I’ve only twice had anything really bad or dangerous happen to me, one of which was a mere pick-pocketing that lost me an iPhone. Ultimately, far more horrible things have happened to me in the city I call home than have in foreign countries.

Sixty miles south, Ensenada looks like a different world. Seriously, I can’t wear heels unless I’ve got a ride. (I just wear my “practical” walking shoes, which are wedges.) What is becoming of me? Also, I like to pretend this taco stand is called “Sarah” even though it isn’t quite. It’s one of my landmarks so I know what street is mine, since it’s not signposted at this intersection.

I’ve always believed it’s a matter of awareness, and that’s something I try to cultivate as I explore new places. Ideally, a foreign environment forces you into a state of heightened awareness. I pay more attention to what’s happening around me when I’m travelling, often because I’m usually a visible minority. There aren’t a whole lot of extremely white redheads in little dresses in Mexico, and I stand out. I’m also generally carrying about $2300 worth of electronics on me at any given time, and I’m aware that the combination makes me an easy target.

There was this day last week when I was walking along the sidewalk, and ahead of me were a group of men casually swinging baseball bats. Logically, I knew they were probably just waiting to go play baseball, but my brain wired itself up into paranoia mode. I suppose the “safe” thing to do would have been to cross to the other side of the street, but I don’t believe in giving in to fear when it’s irrational. Instead, I gritted my teeth, turned off my music, and walked through them, all with stomach-turning visions of a bat cracking into my skull dancing through my head.

Girl with giant knife
This little girl is the most dangerous person I’ve come across so far in Mexico. I’m not quite sure why she’s so pleased with her knife, or why the butterflies aren’t running away from her manic bellbottom-wearing weapon-yielding ways, or why the hell she’s on the side of this building, but I really like her. The type is pretty great, too.

Of course, nothing came of it, and as I’ve acclimatized to Ensenada, I’ve become less paranoid, without losing a sense of vigilance. I’ve also come to realize that—much as I’d expected—the reports of these parts of Mexico being so dangerous are largely unfounded. Sure, it’s different. There’s a military man standing outside the government building, right next to the hospital, with an AK-47. I saw a truck pulled over on the highway, its entire front assembly lifted up to look for drugs hidden within the engine block—apparently they’ve cracked down on drug barons in Tijuana, so many of them have begun to migrate south. And much of the city looks dangerous when you’re used to the sterility of Canada or the States—the sidewalks are broken and haphazard, houses are unkempt, and things are generally in a lesser state of repair. Most houses are gated-in, and many have bars across their first-floor windows. The bathroom of a cafe I frequent looks a little like a gulag, especially at night when the light is so dim I can’t see myself in the mirror. At first glance, it’s easy to mistake a lower standard of living for danger, but that correlation isn’t in all cases true.

Ultimately, part of what I like about Mexico is its rough-around-the-edges quality. I love that it isn’t perfect. I love that you can see where its weathered, and that things are a little bit more chaotic and haphazard than I’m used to. And in spite of wandering around late at night down empty streets, in spite of getting drunker than I ought on too many tequila shots, in spite of being such a blazingly obvious gringa, I haven’t had any problems whatsoever. In fact, people here have been exceptionally nice to me—much nicer than they were in the airport in Chicago or the pub in San Diego.

Bridge at night
While Ensenada isn’t as picturesque as other (generally more Spanish-colonial) cities in Latin America, it has its charms amid the dust and rubble.

I’d hate to think that I miss out on learning new things due to unfounded fears, and I’m glad that I didn’t listen to everyone who basically told me going to Mexico was a death sentence. I’ve yet to be kidnapped by roving gang—instead spend my days eating delicious food, basking in actual sunshine, and discovering new things! In a new place, even the tiniest everyday acts are adventures. I’m here to explore.