Although a plane ticket makes me happy, border crossings are my real true love. Knowing that walking through a man-made barrier will put me in the middle of a different way of living makes me higher than any drug I’ve ever used. That’s why it’s strange that it’s taken me so many years to walk into Mexico but in my defense I’ve been busy, spending a lot of that time crossing borders in Asia.

You’ll never hear me say, “Oh it’s just a border town.” I love them and spend as much time in them as I can whenever I have the chance. Every last one of them that I’ve explored has been a magical blend of unpretentiousness and acceptance, strangely cosmopolitan no matter what their size might be. They’re usually places that attract people from all over their native country, as well as foreign business interests and travelers in motion brandishing a rainbow of passports. They’re havens for scam artists, cheap hotels, and flimsy souvenirs. They’re the 21st Century version of old seaports, filled with wild variety, and when I’m in one, every sense I have is wide awake. 

During my brief Tucson incarnation, at about the time I was ready to explore Nogales, covid got in the way. It wasn’t until this year at he end of July that I returned to Arizona with enough time on my hands to consider a side jaunt to Mexico. Almost as soon as I got off the plane from Seattle, I was thrilled when a friend offered to drive me to Ambo Nogales, those twin cities sharing a name and divided by an international border.

The closer we got, the more foreign the landscape became, changing from wind-scoured desert to hillsides that were softened with green. “Yes. They get more rain here,” my friend told me. We pulled into a Burger King parking lot in the U.S. side of Nogales and when we went inside to pay the fee, everyone in the fast food joint was speaking Spanish. 

A quick walk toward the wall took us past duty-free shops and into a spot where bags and purses went through an x-ray tunnel. We pushed our way through a subway turnstile and there we were, in Heroica Nogales without a visa stamp. 

And in a millisecond I was surrounded by more life than I’d seen in the past three years, in a center of gleeful attention. The street we stood on was a solid mass of pharmacies, dental offices, and touts, a jolly little gauntlet that stretched for at least two blocks. The efficiency of this delighted me. Medical tourists from the U.S. could immediately get what they came for without the stress of encountering another culture. If they walked a little farther, they would enter a barrage of kitsch stalls that offered souvenirs, brightly colored and reeking with optimism. Above it all rose hillsides covered with houses, forming a horseshoe shape that wrapped around the Nogales that sat on the other side of the wall. 

I’m not a sightseer. I look for signs of how a different place functions and even in this very brief stay, Heroica Nogales showed me glimpses of a life I wanted to explore. As my friend wrestled with the inscrutable nature of Google Maps in his search for the legendary restaurant La Roca, I walked and stared–at the many tiny buses that carried people away from this portion of the city, at the supermarket that was only blocks away from the Art Museum, at the sign that proclaimed Sex-Shop resting companionably near a nail salon, at the street stalls selling food–fresh fruit, juices, tacos–and the parks and plazas that were perfect spots for an instant picnic. A freight train moved slowly across the border, heavily embellished with intricate graffiti, and a restaurant offering comida china had a small line waiting to get inside. Two men played chess at a shaded table in a park while pedestrians sauntered along a skybridge above them.

Looking ahead, I saw streets that were removed from the carnival that we were walking through, quiet and enticing with small restaurants and signs for hotels. In spite of the smell that hung in the heated air, reminiscent of sewage and durian, and the cages of puppies and rabbits placed under the sweltering sun with no water bowls, I fell completely in love with everything that waited to be explored.

I always knew Tucson was my gateway to Mexico. What I didn’t know was how I’d respond to that country. Now I know and I can’t wait to go back. Although my cat Mulrooney assures me that no we aren’t going to live there, I’m not quite so sure.