(written in Mexico)
(to essays written at home, afterward)
As of this afternoon, I've been in Mexico for exactly 10 days, and since I've nothing better to do but write about it (and play Peggle), I figured I might as well. Write about it, that is—the Master Challenge levels of Peggle are getting too extreme, even for me. I would go inside and take a nap or read right now, but the cleaning ladies haven't finished cleaning the house yet, and I don't want to bug them. So, delight in reading my account of the first quarter of my stay in Mexico City. I won't likely write again until it's done, nor will I show you any more photos. Also look forward to the culminating post being bilingual—maybe.
At present I'm sitting on a green, metal park bench crawling with orange-and-black insects, connected to some Mexicans' unsecured wireless network. There are tiny birds hopping on the ground and flying in the air; there are trees growing slowly all around me. And the smell in the air, the unmistakable stench of Mexico City combined with the local fumes of Dogshit Park, is repugnant—but unavoidable.
This little patch of greenery, situated between Talud and Calle de la Cueva, is where middle-aged men stretch in their skin-tight jogging suits at 6:42 a.m. It's where old ladies walk, apparently racing snails, with their adult daughters at their side, talking about the state of affairs. It's where I make a shortcut while walking to class in the morning. It's where a visitor can see all sorts of abandoned attempts at animal-shaped shrubbery. And it's where the entire neighborhood brings their dogs to pass bowel movements. That's why I call it Dogshit Park. In fact, the neighborhood has let it get to the point where it is now unsafe to walk anywhere but on the sidewalks, for the certain chance of stepping on a doggy-gift land-mine. This misfortune is made all the more comical by the large, bold signs at every corner, clearly stating, in pictography, "Do not leave your dog poop on the ground."
It isn't a bad neighborhood, though. It's generally quiet, except for the melodious chirping of its 10,000 bird inhabitants, the barking of dogs, and the crying of small children. This is one of those neighborhoods where, were it in the United States, you'd expect to hear, any day now, of a huge marijuana grow-house bust by the DEA. Adjacent to Dogshit Park, at the corner of my street, there's a dirt park for bicycles, where children can be seen in the daytime. Down the street a little farther, there's a playground where these same children can be seen playing in the afternoon. A little farther down from that, there are swing sets, where teenagers can be seen making out in the evening. Beyond that is the yellow gate that marks the end of this Mexican Suburbia.
But it isn't so bad out there. Well, at least some of it must be, given that Mexico City is known for its outrageous violent crime rates—murders, robberies, kidnappings, you name it—especially against Americans. But the Mexico that I've seen has been exceptionally amiable, if a little unglamorous. It's also a lot colder than I had planned—and brought clothes—for. And the water in many places is unpalatable (although I've drank a fair amount from the faucet at home, and I've lived to write about it). Anyone's biggest concern ought to be the traffic. As my advisor Véronique Meis said, "Los mexicanos conducen como locos." It's true—the Mexicans are nearly maniacal when it comes to driving. My señora attributes this to Mexico City's eight-figure population, but I think the not-so-thought-out roadways and freeway system have something to do with it. And somehow, the number of ancient cars on the road makes crossing the street a lot scarier. As my friend Zach put it, "Mexico City is the world's garbage dump for used cars."
I met Zach 10 days ago on United Airlines Flight 819, with service from Chicago to Mexico City, on which, for three-and-a-half hours, I had been sitting two seats to his right without thinking anything of him. He transformed from a perfect stranger to a friend when we were filling out our immigration forms and the man between us had gone to the lavatory. I looked at him and, simultaneously, he looked at me and preempted, "Which part are you stuck on?" A small conversation followed, from which we discovered we were going to the same place: el Tecnológico de Monterrey, Campus Ciudad de México. Since then, I've run into him every couple days. Our friendship was inevitable, given that we are the only two Americans studying at the Tec this summer, and we come from virtually the same geographic area.
Soon our plane began descending into Mexico City, and the first thought that struck my mind was, "Well, it really doesn't look that smoggy;" I could clearly see the red roofs of the boundless sea of buildings below us, the streets between them, and the specks of people. Around 2 p.m., we landed and began the always-arduous process of immigration. I hadn't filled out my forms completely nor altogether accurately, but it proved not to matter, given that I was admitted into the country. After retrieving my backpack from the carousel, I cleared customs and began to search for my family, who was supposed to be waiting, holding a sign with my name on it. I paced back and forth between all the arrival terminals, but didn't find them for 20 minutes. I assume now that they simply arrived late; that's something I've noticed about people in Mexico: They're often late for things and don't seem to mind. That's called being "polychronous," if you'd like a name for it, and it's a frustrating cultural difference between the United States and many other nations around the world.
My New Family
After introductions, la Señora Grati, her daughter Yessica, and I walked to the car, driven by el Señor Arturo, and we began the lengthy drive home. I was given a cursory tour of the city as we drove on the Periférico—we passed the Aztec Stadium and University City, stopped for ice cream, and talked about the allures of Xochimilco. I was surprised and delighted to find that I understood most of what was said. We stopped at the Costco across the street from the Tec (my school for the next few weeks) and got some pizza for dinner, and then drove home to eat it.
One of the most striking differences between my family in Wisconsin and my new family in Mexico is their eating habits. At home, when we get pizza to bring home, if we don't start eating it in the car, we crack open the box just as soon as we walk in the door, dropping our things on the ground, leaving them neglected until the last piece is devoured or everyone is stuffed. In Mexico, though, we set the pizza on the table, talked for a while, washed our hands, sat down and watched TV for a moment (the 2008 Mexican soccer final was about to begin), set the table, prepared a salad, and finally sat down to eat, nearly a half-hour after we had gotten home. I had thought the pizza would already be cold, but the Mexicans had a solution for that: Little did I know Yessica had removed several pieces of pizza from the box and set them to heat on a warm saucepan so that the pizza would stay warm while we were pussyfooting around. The family is all about long meals and warm food. Not only once I've been criticized for eating too fast, and my señora seemed appalled when I was eating breakfast one day and refused to have my plate reheated while I was mid-meal.
That was the last meal I ate that was provided by the family (perhaps there's a correlation), although I have been treated to a sandwich on occasion. It's because, "We all have different schedules, and I just can't prepare you food all the time," as my señora says. That doesn't explain why they cannot leave the door to the kitchen unlocked so I could at least utilize the microwave or fridge, but I don't push the subject. I'm content eating out, at least until my bank account runs out. For breakfast I eat apples and granola bars, for lunch I usually get a sandwich from the food stands on the street or 7-Eleven, and dinner is always a surprise. Yesterday I had some cheap chicken from the supermarket—cheap, I found after I had brought it home, because it was absolutely terrible.
After dinner on my first day in Mexico, we watched TV for quite some time. We saw the Santos win the Mexican final against the Cruz Azul, and then watched parts of several different movies over the course of a few hours. At around 10:30 p.m., we drove to Perisur, one of the many malls in Mexico City, even though all but one of the stores were closed. The one open was Sanborns, which is quite a strange store; they sell books, home gift items, electronics (including laptops) and accessories, and toys, and they even have a bakery. Perisur also features countless movie theaters spanning a few stories and including IMAX films, 3-D movies, and special VIP lounges. It also has a casino.
The next day was orientation, in which Véronique treated Zach and me to a tour of the campus of the Tec de Monterrey. Though small, the campus is stunningly gorgeous. The buildings, inspired by seventeenth-century Mexican architecture, are arranged in a ring and most of them are conjoined by walkways. In the center is a huge courtyard area—perhaps "jungle" would be a better word—garnished with dozens of species of tropical trees, flowers, and shrubbery. This area is sliced by walkways, which are lined with benches, and throughout it are several colonies of picnic tables (with outlets!), shaded by parasols. Were it a little warmer outside, it would be absolutely perfect. It's certainly more pleasurable than Dogshit Park.
Something else noteworthy: The campus has a loose chess theme to some of its decor. Véronique showed us a few of the giant statues of modernized chess pieces sprinkled throughout campus—one of them, I believe it is the Rook in Aulas 1, is signed at the end of each scholastic year by the graduating class's top student. She also showed us the three-foot chessboard in the library's third floor. Even after these things, neither Zach nor I had expected to see the giant outdoor chess set with three-foot-high pieces in front of one of the lecture halls. Both of us let out an audible chuckle of wonder when Véronique assured us, "Yes, the pieces do move," as if she could read our thoughts. "So you can play it if you want."
After the tour, Zach and I took the Tren Ligero (guided by Véronique's directions), which connects to the main metro line, to el Palacio de Bellas Artes, the grand opera house of Mexico City. Even after seeing the architectural spectacles of Paris and Rome, the Palacio, especially its interior, was breathtaking. Afterward, we searched for food and shortly settled on a China Buffet. For 54 pesos per adult for all you can eat, how could you go wrong? Sure, it's not any cheaper than China Garden at Marquette, but it didn't offer the diarrheal side effects that China Garden does. After sitting around and eating for some time, we journeyed back to the metro for the long ride home.
First day of class
My first day of class was nothing short of terrifying. I was slated to attend Sociedad y desarrollo en México at 7:00 a.m., so I woke up at 6:00 a.m. to get ready. Enter my troubles: First, there had been a problem with my payment (the problem being that no bank in Mexico seems to be authorized to accept payment by American checks) so I hadn't been officially registered yet. Second, I didn't have my credencial yet, so it was always bothersome entering the campus, which is walled in from the city and guarded at its gates. Third, I arrived late; I had underestimated the time it took to walk from my house to the classroom. So I gathered my courage and pushed the door open, me being the only white kid in the classroom and receiving stares from every kid in class. I grabbed the first chair I came across, and sat down, listening attentively.
Another kid came late too, and sat down next to me. After the professor had finished going over his policies and the syllabus, he took role and dismissed us. Of course, my name didn't appear on the role call, but I doubt anybody noticed but the professor. I approached him immediately afterward, and we talked for a while. He was very nice and seemed delighted to have my "North American vision" in the classroom. I found that he himself was actually from Canada (I could tell that he wasn't Mexican, obviously, and I had thought I detected a tinge of French in how he pronounced his r's and the word "entre"). We walked along the terrace and he pointed out to me the copy store (CopyRed, right next to 7-Eleven) where I could obtain all the course materials I needed. It turned out they'd run me 34 pesos (about $3.40)—that's a lot better than the $50-and-up textbooks I buy for classes at Marquette.
Class As Usual
The next couple of days of classes were better, even though I found that I could hardly understand the other students at all when they spoke. That would be inconsequential at many other universities, but seeing as Tec de Monterrey stresses small-group work among its students in every class (much like Marquette), I was worried. Now, having been in class for almost two weeks, for two hours every morning, I can say I'm no longer worried. Although I still have to concentrate hard to make my mind not dismiss the sounds of Spanish for meaningless babble, I can say I understand most of what is being said in Spanish (at least I can glean the main point), although I have a long way to go before I would dare say my comprehension is "good." I survived our first debate in class today, granted I was one of the two "peer evaluators," so I didn't have to say much of anything, and our first exam is tomorrow. Things are going well.
So I look forward to the next few weeks of class, even though I am terribly anxious to get back home and see my friends and family, and even more terribly anxious to get back to school at Marquette; I have to smack myself every once in a while so I don't let my time in Mexico pass me by. Even so, I find myself playing Peggle for hours. But that's okay, because Peggle is a wonderful game. Besides class over the next few weeks, I plan to go visit the National Anthropology Museum, University City, the Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo Museum, Teotihuacan, and who knows what else.
From 30,000 feet above the earth, the sun sets a lot later, and takes forever to do so. Moreover, seen from above the filter of the clouds, it's quite a bit brighter. Except for the eye-watering pain that goes along with staring at the sun through an airplane window, it's really beautiful. And between page-turns of Atlas Shrugged
, it seems right to reflect upon the past month or so, which I spent in the largest city in the New World: México, D.F.
I went to Mexico for a lot of reasons; you could say I was seeking to kill a flock of birds with one stone. I'd always wanted to see the National Anthropology Museum in Mexico City. I was going to get three credits, moving myself one step closer to the completion of my degrees. I wanted to practice my Spanish, improving my fluency and comprehension. I wanted to get out of the house and do something different. I was eager to see a ridiculously huge city. I wanted to eat some delicious food. I was going to live with a family because I wanted to see how a family in Mexico City lives. And somewhere deep down, maybe I wanted to get a tan.
The first thing you have to know about Mexico City is that it is freezing there. Not only that, but it's often cloudy and rains every day, at least during the summer. On my Internet browser's start page I have a weather forecast widget, and every day the forecast was the same: low in the 50s, high in the 70s, cloudy, and scattered thunderstorms. It was especially cold in the morning, when I walked to class before it was very light outside. I put up with it for a few days, and then I realized that I wouldn't be able to last the whole summer term with only one pair of jeans and some t-shirts, so I splurged for another pair of jeans and a sweatshirt—from the grocery store. I didn't have very much money, and I wasn't about to go without eating just so I could have nice clothes.
I never bought an umbrella, even though it rained every day. But don't suspect that I wasn't tempted. I find something really attractive about an umbrella: It detaches you from the world, enclosing you inside your own little dry universe; you don't get wet even though rain is falling all around you. There's also something particularly unattractive about an umbrella: It costs money. And that's precisely the reason I never got one. I know I could have bought one from any ambulante
for $2, but the thought of all the bread and bananas I could get for those same $2 seemed to outweigh the umbrella's allure. Though I came close a few times, I never got one, so I damply endured 40 biblical days of rain in Mexico City.
Mole Siempre Mancha
Mexico is one of the world's great countries for many reasons, but perhaps the most glorious is its food. Here's how you know it's great: Mexican food is eaten all over the world, and also has been bastardized by many U.S. restaurant chains. Here's how I know it's great: It is delicious. I'd been eating "real" Mexican food regularly since I was a kid, but nothing prepared me for what it would be like to eat it every day for every meal; it was blissful.
At some point during my time in Mexico City, I developed a sort of addiction to tortas
, filling, delicious sandwiches packed with all my favorite things. I probably had one every other day, and usually from the same place—a jolly, middle-aged man on the street, precisely where my señora had forbidden me from ever eating. Perhaps I played my part in creating Original Sin by eating there, but tortas ambigu
were much more delectable than any forbidden fruit.
In case you're not familiar with tortas, here's how they're made: First, a rather large bread bun, called a bolillo
is sliced longways. Refried beans are spread on the top and sour cream is spread on the bottom. The top is placed beans-side-down on the grill and set to sizzle while the meat is prepared. I generally ordered pastor
, a delicious kind of barbecued pork, which is cooked with pineapples, but sometimes, for a change of pace, I got ham and chorizo
(Mexican sausage), or ham and pineapple (hawaiiana
). While the meat is cooking, an avocado is sliced and the pieces are arranged on top of the sour-creamed half of bolillo. Tomato slices are placed on top of that. Then a dash of salt is sprinkled over the meat as it is scooped up and placed on top of the torta. A bit of Mexican white cheese is placed on top of that, and then the top half of the bolillo is replaced, completing the torta. It's important not to confuse a "torta" with a "sandwich," which in Mexico is always ham, cheese, and mayonnaise. It's also important to note that in Mexico, the word "torta" never means "cake," as it does in some other countries—cake is pastel
I never once had cake in Mexico, and I'd never before craved American cake with buttercream frosting so fervently. But fortunately, Mexico has its own share of sweets (although when they try to imitate American sweets, they always fall short. See cookies
), generally produced by the megacompany Bimbo. Not only is the company name amusing, but the hilarity rises to a whole nother level when you find out that all their chocolate products are labeled "Negrito
," sporting a cartoon of a little black boy with an afro. Bimbo is best known for its sweets, but don't be deterred from buying Bimbo white bread (enhanced with vitamins, and cheaper than Wonder bread), because it tastes like candy. I personally recommend marble panqués
, which are packaged little loaves of sliced sweet bread. Wonderful, filling, (they'd like you to believe) healthy, and cheap.
Most food in Mexico is cheap. Correction: Mexican food in Mexico is cheap. Everything else is expensive. You'll probably pay average American prices if you go to established restaurants, but the beauty of Mexico is that any old Chelita can open up a restaurant in her house by opening her door and putting up a sign. The result is that you can get a full meal for under $4, including soup, an appetizer, a main course of meat, and a dessert. This is how I discovered the odd, wonderful beauty of mole
. It has a weird name because it is very weird, but it's delicious. It's a kind of salsa made from all sorts of things that would raise FDA eyebrows, and chocolate. And everybody loves chocolate. They have a saying in Mexico: "Mole siempre mancha
always stains); after the first time I ever had mole, I delighted in looking down at my spick n' span t-shirt while my señora was trying to wipe the spots off her blouse with a napkin—I'm usually the one to spill all over myself.
Though my class determined when I arrived in Mexico, when I left, and when I woke up in the morning, I didn't really spend that much time in class, and after the first couple weeks I didn't have too much homework to do, which had previously consisted mostly of readings. Class sessions ran two hours every morning for the duration of the term, starting at 7 a.m. Sociedad y desarrollo en México
, it was titled, and that it was. We covered the important themes of Mexico's history, focusing on the last 50 years, violence, drug trafficking, family life, the environment, and pop culture. I, of course, received excellent marks in the class (my final calificación
was 97%), and I spent a good deal of time talking to my friend Moises, who sat next to me. Among many other things, we talked about the groserias
in our respective native tongues, which led to a discussion of the etymology of the word "nigger." It's funny to see the certain elements of our American culture that make their way to other countries.
A large part of our grade (25%) was the final presentation, which was an oral report on some aspect of Mexican culture. The class was split into four groups, which chose their own topics. There was a presentation on litter and pollution, one on poverty, and another on the world food crisis. Our project was on something (in my opinion) a little less cliché: ambulantaje
. You may not know it, but the informal, illegitimate, street vendors are tangled in all sorts of issues in Mexico; in our report, we divided them into four sections: cultural impact, politics, economy, and environment. Our presentation format was also something novel to the professor: We made a video documentary. Well, it's best described as a montage of photos, some pointless driving sequences, lots of facts written in a hard-to-read typeface, and a few interviews. Despite its amateurishness (I can't complain, the final product was strung together in a day or two by one of our group members, affording me more free time, although I do take credit for most of the video's photos), it was a resounding success. I'm not sure what we received on it, but it was well in the A-range.
On Tuesdays and Fridays, I also had a stained glass workshop, which was generally enjoyable. I was annoyed by this because I had to buy my own materials—I spent $40 on a glass cutter, pliers, and glass—and only made a weird sun-catcher thing and a candleholder. In any case, I found some strange pleasure in chopping a sheet of glass into little tiny squares, even if the process is sadistic and monotonous.
I've accepted it long ago: I have a warped idea of "fun" compared to most people. I like to read. I enjoy studying. I get it, I'm weird. But don't think that I'm not capable of having fun in the "normal" sense of the term; the past year has shown that to be untrue.
One of the most fun nights I had in Mexico was when Yessi invited me out with some of her friends and we all went to a bar in Polanco, where I met a Green Bay Packers fan (I didn't have the heart to tell him about Brett Favre) who ditched his girlfriend, Mariana, on the way home. Mariana then rode home with us, and the conversation somehow led to a long-winded discussion about how much she hates gringos
, like Michael from Michigan. When I feigned offense she corrected herself, saying that sometimes she can get along with white people, like me, for example; we got along fine. But in general she hates them.
In Mexico I made an American friend, Zach, who is from Chicago and was studying at the same university as me. I decided long ago that his host family was far superior to mine, the most notable criterion being that he actually lived in their house. His host brother, Pedro, is another reason; he is around our age. One day he took Zach and me to Yardas, a restaurant that started out as a family-run pizzeria. But they made the mistake of starting to sell cheap beer, and soon people started coming just for the beer. Then they dropped the rule requiring you to order food with your beer. Now they have a bouncer.
Come to think of it, Zach and I had quite a few adventures in Mexico City. One night, having nothing else to do, we ate dinner with Connie, another student from China, on the ground next to the freeway inside a large concrete sculpture. It seemed like the kind of place where teenagers might go to smoke pot and where hobos would come to pee. The ground was covered in bottles. Dinner consisted of Coca-Cola and potato chips. Later we went back to Zach's house, and Connie and I took a taxi home—one of two taxis that I ever took in Mexico City. It was on this ride, after Connie had been dropped off, when the taxista
and I were talking about the delicious qualities of tacos, that I learned the phrase estar bien chido
, solving my long-unanswered question of how to say "cool" in Spanish. FYI, the word "padre
" is probably more common for this meaning.
On one of our most recent adventures, Zach and I took a bus to Coyoacán to check out some used book stores. The buses in Mexico City are a gem of public transportation. There are, of course, the larger (but less extensive) transportation networks of the Metro and the Metrobus, both of which run vehicles that seem to be built this century, but the green and gray camiones
that can be seen puttering along nearly every road in the city have so much more character. They can fit (not seat) maybe 30 people, and there's usually a jolly joven
hanging onto the door handle with his body halfway out of the vehicle shouting, for example, "¡Metro Tasqueña
! ¡Al Tasqueña
!" The driver plays upbeat norteña
that bounces with the vehicle, racing other vehicles and jovially talking with the passengers. The cracks in the windshield complete the scene. The fare is 3 pesos, and not even the bike taxi can beat that.
Though the bus ride was a worthwhile destination in itself, Coyoacán proved charming, albeit mostly under construction. Zach spent $50 on books whereas I spent a meager $2 (although that ratio is about how our spending generally compared) on a book on violence, health, and drugs in Latin America. We stopped in a punk rock clothing store, got sodas from a 7-Eleven, and then got some ice cream. "We might as well get flavors you can't get at home," he justified to me as he ordered one scoop of piña colada and one of tequila. The piña colada ice cream was sweet and delicious because it tasted like piña colada. The tequila ice cream was strange and unsettling because it tasted like tequila.
I also saw a few movies while I was in Mexico. I saw Indiana Jones
and The Hulk
at the cheap movie theatre. (It's comparable in quality to an average American theatre but tickets only cost $2.80 for students, and a little bit more for everyone else). Both were dubbed in Spanish, but I only almost died on the way home from The Hulk
. That time I had attempted to take a shortcut home, but it ended up taking an extra hour instead of cutting five minutes. At some point in my walk, I was crossing the street when two police officers helping a man with his pickup truck called for my help. It seemed some long metal sheets, which were hanging out the back, had started to fall out of the bed of the truck and they were trying to lift them up. I took a place in the middle and at their count lifted as hardily as I could, and at our apogee one of the police officers slipped a wooden stake underneath the metal sheets to hold them up. I'm not quite sure what that had accomplished, or what we were going to do after that, but they gave me their thanks and said that was all. Confused, but anxious to continue on my way trying to find my way, I went on walking. It wasn't until a few minutes later that I realized my hands were bleeding in four different places, and I had to wrap them in the bottom of my t-shirt to try and stop the flow. The inner Dad in me was worried I'd have to get stitches—or worse—but it turned out to be fine in the end. After about 45 minutes of walking in what I had imagined was one general direction, I looked up to find myself back at the movie theatre. Rather than trying again to find the correct shortcut (it was starting to get dark), I took the tried-and-true route and made it home in 20 minutes, including a stop at 7-Eleven for a Coke Zero (I think the commercial before the movie had infected my brain).
I had meant to go see Kung Fu Panda
, but never got around to it. I didn't think I was going to see any more movies, but when it came to my very last day in the country, my señora surprised me by treating me to Super Agente 86
) at the VIP movie theater in Perisur. Seats in the VIP theater are assigned on a best-available basis, and are large, leather recliners. They also have a wait staff with full-service restaurant offerings to enhance your theater experience. It's really quite impressive. The theater was practically empty, except for one other couple two rows behind us. Not that it mattered, though, because the seats were spacious enough. The movie was all right; it was goofy but not hilarious, with a trite plot and some novel moments. When the credits started to roll, we got up to leave; the couple behind us had started to roll as well.
I Can Be a Tourist Too
It'd be silly to spend such a long time in such an interesting city and not check out some of the museums and landmarks that make the place famous, even if they are crawling with tourists and I'd stick out like a gray hair. And moreover, even in the most famous attractions of the city there aren't nearly as many tourists as there were in places in Europe. This might have something to do with that perceptive of Mexico as a giant toilet, but who knows.
I saw most of the tourist attractions, and to avoid boring you with the drivel you could find on any travel website, I'll fast forward a bit. We saw Frida Kahlo's house and Diego Rivera's studio and pre-hispanic art gallery, Anahuacalli; we took a stroll through Chapultepec forest with the grandparents, actually I did alone while they all sat at the restaurant; my host family took me on a few different car tours through different parts of the city, including the plaza de San Jacinto and a nice art flea market in San Angel, el Centro Histórico, el Paseo de la Reforma, and the University City; Zach and I went to the Zócalo, watched the flag lowering ceremony, and visited the Metropolitan Cathedral; my señora, her friend, and I went to el Castillo de Chapultepec; I went to el Museo del Templo Mayor and the National Palace near the historic center; I went to the Museum of Modern Art, where I saw a few great works and a lot of pointless works.
One of the best things, though, and perhaps my principal reason for choosing Mexico City, was el Museo Nacional de Antropología. One day Zach and I took the metro there after class, and got off at the Chapultepec stop to avoid having to switch lines. It was meant to save time, even though we'd have to walk through a section of Chapultepec Park, but that turned out to be precisely the reason that it took more time.
The Clown and the Dance Contest
Street performers are practically a staple of public malls—the Southwark along the Thames in London comes to mind—and Chapultepec Park is no exception. On this particular day, there was only one clown doing an unspectacular routine that somehow captivated Zach. I was eager to keep going to get to the museum, but when I realized that Zach had left me, standing transfixed and staring at a pink-faced clown, I stopped as well and went to lean on a nearby tree until he had had his fill. Unfortunately, the tree I chose was rather isolated, and so I was standing by myself directly in the center of the clown's field of vision. It wasn't long before he started calling to me, and I was deciding whether I should respond or feign incomprehension. By this time Zach had been standing next to me, and he started answering, and before I knew it we had both become part of the show.
After some brief introductions, Zach and I became the team "Los Extranjeros
," and we were to participate in a dance competition against the two other teams: "Los Niños
," a little boy and a little girl, both probably around seven years old, and "Los Mexicanos
," which consisted of Gordito
, a boy in his early teens and another guy in his early twenties. The audience voted for Los Niños to go first, and when the music started the little boy traipsed onto the dance floor and began moving his body with erotic promiscuity, undoubtedly influenced by any female MTV star. He ripped off his shirt and hosed it between his legs, rubbing it against his crotch and then swinging it like a lasso above his head. I was in shock, wondering where a little boy could have learned this, and before I knew it the music had stopped, and the boy retired to a hearty applause. The little girl, who I found out was his sister, followed him up with a cowgirl routine that was much more tame.
Next up were Los Mexicanos, but the older guy refused to dance, and left Gordito there alone. After some hesitation, Gordito entered the dancefloor and did something generic, and then finished up. Then it was our turn, and I elected Zach to go first. He did his thing, and by that time the clown could see he was losing our allegiance and the audience's attention, so he changed things up a bit. The next few minutes were spent running at each other, catching each other, and carrying each other around while the one being carried waved like Miss America. After we finished, we each received a prize. Zach got a rather large balloon. I was supposed to receive a pickup truck, but the clown didn't have any left, so instead he gave me a girl. He introduced us and we said our hellos, which in Mexico consist of a quick peck on each other's left cheek. "In Mexico there are three kisses," said the clown. "Left, right, and center." We kissed as he said this: left, right, and... wait, what? and stood looking at each other awkwardly. Her teeth were really crooked. So we shook hands and the clown told us to leave, so we walked a ways, trying to calculate the appropriate distance so as not to be rude, but each trying to terminate our relationship as quickly as possible to get back to real life. Once we reached where Zach was standing and waiting, we said our goodbyes and parted our ways. And that's the story of how I won a Mexican girl as a prize from a clown.
Pyramids and Pride
No trip to Mexico City would be complete without a visit to the ancient city of Teotihuacán, and I wouldn't pass up the chance for the world. In fact, I was fully prepared to go a day or two without eating if the bus fare and admission would be more than my budget allowed for. Luckily, the bus costed $3.00 each way (the ride was probably a little over an hour) and admission was free for students.
We started our journey just after 7 a.m. at the southern gate of the Tec and walked to the Tren Ligero station. From there is was a 40 minute ride to Tasqueña, where we transferred to the main metro line, and took that to the northernmost stop of the city, Indios Verdes. That whole ride probably took an hour and a half, although it didn't seem so long because we changed lines a few times. At Indios Verdes we bumbled around a bit before we found out where the bus basin was, and then continued on our way.
The bus was cramped and shabby and everything unlike the photos I saw online. But it was okay because, like the camiones
, it was just fun. The windshield was cracked and the ride was bumpy even on smooth roads, and we listened to hoppy Mexican music as we drove along. We even detoured through San Juan-Teotihuacán, a rural town with mud roads, and had to drive behind a herd of cows for a while because they were taking up the whole path. The pyramids were the last stop, and we entered with adventurers' earnest, more excited than ever to walk around. We climbed the small pyramid in front of the Temple of Quetzalcoatl, hung around there for a while taking it all in, then headed up the Avenue of the Dead toward the Pyramid of the Sun.
"Es obsidiana, amigo
," said every vendor as we walked past. I never knew I had so many friends before I came to Teotihuacán. I didn't buy anything, though, having already reached my anti-stuff, anti-junk epiphany and, having no money, I just kept my sites set on the pyramids ahead. All the vendors sell the same few items there: small masks, pyramids, sun stone replicas, lace tablecloths, orbs, figurines, jewelry—junk. "Mira, Joven: máscaras.
" Kept on walking; partially because I had no money to spare, partially because I didn't want any of their junk, and partially because I knew that if I decided soon after that I just couldn't live without that small, glass pyramid statuette, I could buy the very same one from the vendor ten yards away.
The Pyramid of the Sun was a long climb, a small section of it being nearly vertical, but it was well worth the climb. The view from the top was astounding, and we had arrived in the morning before the site was full of people, so we sat around up there for a while and took a nap on top of the world's tallest still-climbable pyramid.
After snacking a bit and looking around some more, we descended and walked a giant loop to the archaeological museum of Teotihuacán where, among many artifacts, there is a giant to-scale model of ancient Teotihuacán covered with a glass floor so you can walk over it with a bird's-eye view.
We walked around a bit more, and after a few hours in total at Teotihuacán, we said goodbye and headed back to where the bus would pick us up. Some time later, we landed back at Indios Verdes, ate some pays de queso
, and took the metro to Pino Suarez, where Zach wanted to look for some books and I wanted to take some photos. We bummed around there for a few hours and, looking for something to do, started walking toward the Zócalo. On the way we saw a person every now and then with a rainbow colored lei, thinking nothing of them until their frequency became too high to pass off as incidence. Similarly, there were people all around town carrying statues of what I at first thought was Jesus, but later found out was Saint Jude of Tadeo. The t-shirts with large, lurid words saying, "San Judeo Tadeo
," with a picture of the saint kind of gave it away.
As we neared the Zócalo, we realized that a parade was beginning, and we grabbed a seat on the metro stairwell to watch. Sure, it was a gay pride parade, but they had ambulances and pirate ships and everything; it was a spectacle my trip to Mexico City wouldn't have been complete without. I also found it particularly ironic that a huge gay gathering was taking place practically on the stoop of the city's principal cathedral. In truth, the parade was a bit boring at times; most of the floats were the same: a bunch of half-naked men on a flatbed dancing to club music—but every now and then there was something different. For example, the S&M bondage float was interesting to say the least, and there was one with red and green condoms dancing around.
All this time I was particularly puzzled by the people carrying around the saints—we had solved the mystery of the rainbow leis, but this other issue remained to be solved. Zach and I joked that the saints were in protest to the gay parade, and I suggested that perhaps Saint Jude is the patron saint of anti-gay. To this day I'm unsure of the connection; the day in question was June 28, and Saint Jude's festival isn't until October 28. So it seems that there was no reason for his cameo on that particular day. I found out later, though, that Saint Jude is the patron saint of "all disreputable activities," so perhaps there is
a relation there.
The Guard Next Door
My host family was nice enough; they provided me transportation, my señora accompanied me to different museums and parts of the city, Yessi became a friend of mine and we pasábamos un rato
from time to time, the father was always out of town and I only saw him three times or so over the 40 days I lived with them. Even so, there were a few things that were indescribably queer about them—perhaps it's just that they're Mexican. For one, the door was always closed.
The front door opened into an atrium/foyer that also served as a one-car garage, and from there you could hang a right and walk up to my bedroom, or go straight and enter the main house through the "real" front door. Well, even when everyone was home, the real front door was uninvitingly closed, so I generally just went upstairs to my room to read, study, use the computer, or do whatever it is I did. My señora had invited me to knock whenever I needed anything, but out of principle I never did. If they didn't want to pretend I lived there with them, I wouldn't help them not do it by knocking like a stranger when I wanted to come in my house.
I didn't really seek their company—I'm pretty independent—and my room had its own bathroom and shower, so the only real setback to the situation was that I'd have to provide my own food. I haggled down the price of rent, because the original quote was supposed to include all my meals, and even the adjusted price was a bit steep considering I'd have to eat out all the time, but I didn't push the issue since it was already much cheaper than any apartment's rent in the United States.
Being that I was on a very limited budget, I was always looking for the cheapest way to eat. For breakfast I usually ate fruit; I started out with apples but switched to bananas when I found out they were 70 cents per kilogram. For lunch I usually had a torta for $2.50, which kept me full until the evening, and for dinner, depending on how much was left in my daily allowance, I either had bread and hot sauce, more fruit, a donut, some cheese, tortillas, etc. In any case, dinner generally came from the nearby supermarket (although my options were extremely limited without the access to a fridge, oven, or microwave).
The supermarket, or mega
, as I referred to it, had everything I could ever want, and for cheap. And there were lots of samples, every day of the week. Cleaning products, bits of bread, cookies, meats—even alcohol. The bakery section was my favorite, where they sold donuts for 35 cents and miche
buns for 23 cents. It was fun, too, because you walked around with a tray, collecting all the pieces you wanted, and then brought them to the counter to get rung up and bagged. Besides that, it was pretty much like a Wal-Mart Supercenter, in that it sold department store stuff in addition to groceries, except that the "store" part of it was actually on the second story. The first floor was much more interesting: there was a bar, an ice cream shop, a photo studio, a mini-bakery, and about twenty little booths, most of which sold useless junk. There was a cell phone booth, a satellite TV booth, and an Internet service booth. There was a booth in which a middle-aged woman sold ladies' undergarments: one-piece, tan, and stretchy. There was a booth that sold stuffed animals, behind which two guys sat every day, staring dreamily into each other's eyeliner. And there was a booth called "Arabian Creations" that sold fake polystone Egyptian "artifacts" to clutter up your home.
After I passed by that booth for the millionth time—I went to Mega once or twice a day—it dawned on me how much Mexicans love useless junk. I'm sure there's some who don't, and maybe the ones who do don't realize it, but all the Mexican homes I've entered have been full of trinkets that serve no purpose but to take up space—they're not even aesthetic. There can be no aesthetics when your decor consists of little fairy statuettes, miniature birdhouses, mugs, trays of small plastic seashells, American flag table-runners, ceramic kitties, wire animals, and bottles of sand, all arranged randomly in every vacant space. Every table, every cabinet, every bookshelf. Mexicans seem to like to collect one of everything, and walking around their houses is like browsing an antique shop to gander at all the ridiculous things you can't believe anybody would be stupid enough to ever buy, let alone make.
On most days I arrived home in the early afternoon, usually with a grocery bag in hand, and unfailingly there was a man standing in front of the house next door. The first few times I dismissed his presence, but after that, I realized he must be some sort of guard. If so, well, he wasn't a very good guard—either that or there was no reason to be—because every time I saw him he was texting on his cell phone or washing his car.
Sometimes I would get home and the real front door would be ajar. Because of the lighting, I could never clearly see if there was anyone within immediate view, but I never took my chances by staring; I darted to the right and toward my room so that I wouldn't encounter anyone. At some point during my stay there, a friend of mine told me, "I can't imagine you not wanting to talk to them." The problem, I told her, was that she wasn't able to properly imagine the degree of their queerness.
The Obligatory Complaints
It wasn't only the locked door, and it would have been another thing if they were consistent about it. I mean, sometimes my señora was so fawning, inviting me down for this or that or, my most despised, "just to spend some time." I could handle it when she wanted to talk "for two minutes," even when it ended up being an hour and a half. I could handle it when I wasn't hungry and she wanted to cook me eggs. I could handle it when she wanted to clean my room. I could even handle it when she wanted me to accompany her on some errand. But the one thing that absolutely made me curse to myself when I heard it following the shout, "¡Oye, Tim
!" up the stairs, was "Te invitamos pasar un rato con nosotros...
I don't know whether they just got bored a lot, if they really had nothing to do, were major procrastinators, or just huge deadbeats, but they got a kick out of nothing more than sitting
. Sitting and chatting and watching TV—three things that, unless done at the same time as something else productive, are huge wastes of time and, for me, causes of stress and frustration. If she wanted me to sit with them, I usually brought my computer so I could keep working, because chances are I was either studying for class, studying economics, reading articles online, or reading my book. From time to time I could stand the chatting part, since I wanted to practice my Spanish, but once I realized just how much Señora went off on tangents, repeated herself, laughed at her own jokes, and lost track of time, I quickly grew to hate it. Purposeful conversations are always okay, and chatting is fine while walking or doing something else, such as eating a meal, but I would never consider making
time to chat about nothing.
But I never liked sitting and watching TV. At home, I watch TV only when specific shows I enjoy are on. In Mexico, they seemed to sit in front of the TV just to kill time, and I couldn't stand it. And it wasn't as if I could go down for five minutes to satisfy their apparent need to see my face, because I'd be stuck there for hours, waiting for an opportunity to exit without being rude. The first few times I came down, unschooled and naive. After that I started making up excuses. Later, I dropped the effort of the excuse and just left it at, "No." She never seemed to get the message.
The Fun Times
But there were times when Señora was bearable, even fun. We went to a few museums together, a movie, and had dinner a few times. She tried to be helpful, but usually it was too much. For example, one of my first weeks in Mexico, she took me around town to all the places I could go to eat. By that time, I had already established a pretty solid routine and was able to stick to my budget. She didn't really understand that I didn't have unlimited cash, and showed me all these restaurants that ran $7 or $8 per meal, a sum that was higher than my daily allowance. But she didn't stop there; she parked the car and took me inside and demanded the hostess to show me the menu so I knew what they had. She bothered the workers and skipped in line, ignoring the presence of any other customers anywhere. I learned what it was like to have an annoying mother.
Talking to her was a lot more bearable when I learned to tune in and out of conversation, so I wouldn't have to hear her repeat the same thing three times. At first I would respond inappropriately, at which times I could feign incomprehension and ask her to repeat what she said, but after a while I became quite good at it.
One day after dinner, I remembered to ask her about that guard next door. She lowered her voice and looked around, and told me she'd tell me inside so that the neighbors wouldn't hear. I was expecting something good. What she told me was that the neighbors hired the guard from the navy to create the impression that they were important people, when in fact they were just ordinary middle-class citizens. Had they really been rich or important, they would live in a different hacienda
. That bit took her about seven minutes to explain, but I didn't notice. Kind of bummed that there wasn't nobility or a criminal or some sort of illicit activity going on next door, I went to bed.
Many times during my stay in Mexico, my señora asked me, "What did you expect Mexico to be like?" I told her, each time, that I thought the family would be more traditional, that I would actually be included in it, and that their pastimes wouldn't be so pointless. Well I didn't use those exact words... I said it in Spanish. This always led to the same conversation, and after the first time I was already bored of it.
"Well this is a big city," she said. "It's like New York City. Everyone has different schedules, and everyone is always moving, and we're always doing stuff, and we have meetings and appointments, and we just can't be home all the time to make you food. We have different schedules, you know? It's a very big city. I think you were expecting something like a very small town. I think you should go to a very small town. You know, my friend knows where Cuernavaca is. That's where Cortes' palace is. We should go there. I'll have to talk to my friend to see if there's anything worthwhile there. My friends can tell me what there is to see there. I'll have to talk to them and they'll advise me. We could go there one day and I could go to a little café and you could take a look around and walk around all day and then we could go back. That would be nice, wouldn't it? Yeah, Cuernavaca is a very little town. Well it's not really a very little town, it's actually kind of big. But it's pretty traditional. I think that's what you had in mind when you said,'Hey, I'll go to Mexico,' because that's how it's thought of in the United States, isn't it? Yeah, I thought so. Mexico is a very large city."
I think you might be beginning to understand what I mean about her.
And Before You Know It...
All my time in Mexico, I was thinking of the day I'd leave, and what the conversation would be like in the car. Somehow I thought she would ask me, "So what was your favorite part?" like people do after an action movie with no plot. I had thought many times about what my answer might be. It's funny; Zach had asked Connie and me that question when we were sitting inside that concrete sculpture alongside the freeway eating chips, and I didn't know what to say. "Well, what made you smile?" he said. "This," was my answer, and I think it was sincere.
But I'd never want to explain that whole situation to my señora, who would stop listening and respond with something unrelated anyway. And besides, that had been weeks before, and I had done so many other things since then. My favorite sites were undoubtedly the Anthropology Museum and Teotihuacán, and my favorite nights were undoubtedly the one at Yardas, the one out with Yessi's friends, and the one where Zach and I made cheesed-up soup and watched Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid
. But my favorite thing overall about Mexico City was, undoubtedly, the food.
When the moment finally came, when we were in the car on the way to the airport and Yessi was driving, my señora turned and asked me, "So what was your favorite part?" I responded, "I don't know..." and she automatically proceeded to list off everything I saw in the city: "Well there was Perisur, that mall you went to with Yessi, and there was Bellas Artes, and Coyoacán where Frida's house was and they have those trains—"
"Yeah," I responded. "That."