US PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS: South of the border and far from God

John Carlin finds Tijuana a sharp antidote to the Republican convention
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The Independent Online
Fifteen minutes by road south of the greatest show on earth, the Republican National Convention in San Diego, is the world's busiest border- crossing. And possibly the most stark.

San Diego - with its shiny skyscrapers, its marinas, its vast air-craft carrier docked in the bay - is a picture of American opulence. Cross the bridge into Tijuana, where somehow the air is stickier and you have no sense of the sea. The first thing you see is a torso in rags and a pair of ancient eyes pleading for a cent; then a via dolorosa of bony little Indian women on their knees; then a mangy yellow dog, shooed away from the pavement by a vendor who sold life-size porcelain dogs in sunglasses and bleeding crucified Christs.

I leafed through a copy of El Sol de Tijuana and saw no mention of the Republican convention. The two main stories concerned a local Japanese businessman who had been kidnapped - ransom $2m - and a man who had hanged himself.

The main drag in town is the tacky Avenida Revolucion. It was teeming with American day-trippers, young men with rings through their nipples, young women in bikini tops, dissolute grey-hairs with pony-tails, their arms around the waists of dusky painted maidens in high-heels.

At four in the afternoon the dance floor at Iguanas and Ranas (Iguanas and Frogs) was jumping with young Americans. Empty beer bottles lay on the tables, like trophies of debauchery. At the entrance a sign in English read: "Rules and Regulations: No ties allowed, worn at own risk; complaints yes, constructive criticism no; birthdays, anniversaries, divorces - we celebrate."

If you were looking for a respite from the suffocating family-values- God-Bless-America fest up north, here it was. The question in my mind was whether I would wander across a war-party of Republican grandees stumbling out of one of the seedy strip-joints, rows and rows of them, that lined Revolution Avenue. But alas no.

The closest I came to what might have been a fugitive Republican contingent - though upon inquiry I turned out to be disappointed again - was an encounter with an elderly, American couple from North Carolina posing for a photograph on a street corner. She was perched on the saddle of what looked like a zebra but I discovered, on closer inspection, was a white burro painted with black stripes. He was sitting on a red cart behind her. The backdrop was a brightly coloured scene of a half a dozen Aztec warriors standing on the edge of a lake from the shores of which rose a snow-peaked volcano.

I wandered on down the street and came across another Mexican zebra, then another, then another. They were so convincing that on the way back to the border I asked my taxi-driver whether this was some special, striped variety of Mexican donkey. I wish I'd never asked. "No, senor, no," he said. "The Americanos, they think they are zebras. But they are just burros. The people paint them."

I began to wonder whether the torso I'd seen on first entering Mexico, the old man cut literally in half, had also been an optical illusion. But I saw him again and it wasn't.

Then it was back across the border to the Republicans and Elizabeth Dole doing her Oprah Winfrey number, microphone in hand, telling American television viewers about her husband's terrible Second World War wounds. How he'd spent three years in hospital wondering whether he would ever walk again, getting off lightly in the end, assisted by the best surgeons in the world, with a gammy right arm. And then I thought of the torso, who was about Bob Dole's age, and how it was his misfortune to have been born south of the border.

In the imploring eyes and unspeakable, endless suffering of the old man the words of the turn-of-the-century dictator, Venustiano Carranza, continued to ring true. "Poor Mexico: so close to the United States, and so far from God."