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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

We turn now to Tijuana, Mexico. The streets there can be deadly. Last year, more than 800 people died, many at the hands of drug traffickers. But there is another side to life in Tijuana, and NPR's Carrie Kahn finds it as part of our series on unexpected aspects of border life.

CARRIE KAHN: Hundreds of bicyclists, some decked out in custom bike clothes, others in just jeans and T-shirts, gather in front of the Tijuana City Hall.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing)

KAHN: It's 7:00, and everyone is lined up. I've spent a lot of time in Mexico, and this is not like any event I've ever seen.

(Soundbite of whistle blowing)

Unidentified Man #1: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: Not only does it start exactly on time, the organizers are sticklers for safety and follow every rule of the road.

Unidentified Woman #1: (Spanish spoken)

Unidentified Man #2: (Spanish spoken)

KAHN: They have monitors all along the route. They stop at every red light, and everyone has to wear a helmet. I pull along 27-year-old Saida Perez and start riding with her. She just recently moved across the border to San Diego, where she's a laboratory biologist. But she still comes back every Wednesday night for the ride.

Ms. SAIDA PEREZ (Laboratory Biologist): It's not that big of a workout, but it's a fun thing to do.

KAHN: It's a 14-mile ride. Saida says it takes more than two hours because of all the traffic, all the stopping and battling with cars.

(Soundbite of horn honking)

Ms. PEREZ: There's no culture here about cycling, and it's very important that we learn about it.

KAHN: It's pretty rare to see a cyclist brave the streets of Tijuana. They have to contend with giant potholes and lots of skinny, mean dogs - not to mention clouds of thick black truck exhaust. But the biggest road hazard may be the random array of those circular yellow street reflectors that just seem to sprout out of the asphalt.

Ms. PEREZ: Okay, I'm going over some bumps. Oh!

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEREZ: Oh, there's a lot of bumps here. We call them bolitas matadoras.

KAHN: Translated: little killer balls.

Ms. PEREZ: Because they make you go off your bike. But those are small. There's some other big ones.

KAHN: Great. But in a violent city like Tijuana, hitting a few bumps is not the biggest worry. Saida says she tries not to think about the hundreds of drug killings here. She grew up in Tijuana, and you can tell she loves her city, as she points out some personal landmarks.

Ms. PEREZ: I went to school here for high school. I'm very proud of this place. And it used to be a recreational center in the '20s. All the gangsters who come here, there was a casino and a very elegant and fancy hotel and a salon.

KAHN: Up the hill is one of her favorite parts of the ride: the giant bakery.

Ms. PEREZ: When we go through here, it smells like cookies. It's like - it just smells so good. And when we're coming back, it smells even better.

KAHN: We also pass the general hospital, where armed drug traffickers brazenly burst into the emergency room and grabbed an injured colleague. And you can see the gates of the state prison, where a riot broke out and dozens of inmates were killed. As we peddle down an eight-lane highway, a heavily armed federal police convoy rolls by. The men are standing in the back of three pickup trucks. Saida looks tense.

Ms. PEREZ: Well, for me, it's so scary. I think overall, my friends say that it's pretty scary to see them around because they have the guns and they seem to be ready to shoot.

KAHN: Most of the officers' faces are covered by thick, black ski masks.

This is a real tour of Tijuana.

Ms. PEREZ: Yeah. This is a real tour.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: The light turns green and they're off. And so are we. Asked some of the riders what they're most afraid of: the narcos or the cars.

Dr. CESAR ZUNIGA (Dentist): (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: Cesar Zuniga, a local dentist, says he's afraid of both. But neither will stop him from coming out for the Wednesday night rides.

Dr. ZUNIGA: Yeah. This is very peaceful.

KAHN: Even more peaceful, the doctor says, when he cranks up his iPod.

(Soundbite of police whistle)

KAHN: We pass the halfway mark, and that's where the night's tally is taken: 375 bikers tonight. The record was 429. The traffic has lightened, and it's starting to get dark. There aren't a whole lot of street lights along the route, but there are plenty of people still out on the streets. One woman starts cheering as the bikers pass.

Unidentified Woman #2: (Spanish spoken)

(Soundbite of applause, laughter)

Ms. PEREZ: She said the last is the best, because I'm all the way in the back.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PEREZ: Just some people standing on the corner, applauding the bicyclists, excited, waiting for me.

KAHN: We pick up the pace now. It's really getting dark. We pass a flame-throwing juggler and a drummer panhandling at a corner.

(Soundbite of drum)

KAHN: And soon, we're back at City Hall.

KAHN: Whew! We made it.

Unidentified Man #1: I knew you could do it.

Unidentified Man #2: So he knew you could do it. Did you like it?

KAHN: It was great.

(Soundbite of laughter)

KAHN: It was really great.

(Soundbite of crowd chatter)

KAHN: So, now do we all go eat tacos?

KAHN: Tijuana may not have bike paths yet, but it does have some of the best tacos in the world.

Carrie Kahn, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can learn more about life on the border at the new npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

WERTHEIMER: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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