Friday, March 17, 2006

Mexico City...

Cathy and I took a 3.5 hour bus ride to Mexico City, the second most populated city in the world, where I got in my first fight of the trip with a bastard of a bus station taxi worker. During our bus ride we had just read an ominous two-page crime section vehemently warning how many of the taxis in Mexico City are actually taxis stolen by criminals planning to victimize tourists and Mexicans alike. In 2003, the US State Department proclaimed that “Robbery assaults on passengers [in Mexico City taxis] are frequent and violent, with passengers subjected to beating, shootings and sexual assault.”

The Lonely Planet: Mexico guide suggests that you demand to only take a taxi sitio with an orange stripe and an “S” at the beginning of the license plate instead of a taxi libre which is a little less secure and more likely to be stolen by bandits intent on robbing you. We paid our pesos to a secure taxi service and were taken outside by one of their workers. He took us to a taxi line and brusquely directed us to one of the taxis.

We both looked at the license plate and the car. No orange stripe and no “S.” It was a taxi libre, a bit less secure than what we had paid for. I looked down the line where a Mexican gentleman was being directed to a taxi sitio with an orange stripe, the exact type of taxi we wanted.

“We need another taxi.”

“What do you mean?”

“We want an ‘S’ taxi.”

“Why” he started to yell at us, waving his arms at the long line of taxis behind us, “They’re all the same!”

“We want an S taxi.” I told him again, beginning to feel like a high-maintenance American. I knew, however, that both of our mothers would want us being obstinate when it comes to our own safety. Better safe than sorry, especially after a two-page crime section on taxi hustling in Mexico City.

The taxi driver had gotten out of the car and was watching the argument now.

“Well, this isn’t an S taxi but it’s yours and you have to go in it anyway,” the worker told us.

I tried to size the taxi driver up from ten feet away and I wondered if I could really tell if he was a thug intent on raping us just on looks and first instincts alone, but that’s probably not the best way to make safe decisions as a woman in the third world.

“No, we don’t have to take this taxi,” I turned to face the irate taxi worker.

“Yes, you do!” he said. “This one’s yours. There are many other people waiting. JUST GET IN THE CAR!”

He obviously hadn’t dealt with a strong-headed Aries before and now the B**ch was coming out.

“We’ll just wait here for another taxi then. Someone else can take this one.”

“Listen,” he said yelling at me in Spanish and shaking his finger at me, “I’m not fucking around here, I have to work and make a living.”

He stormed off, telling all of his friends what a pain in the ass we were being.

Now most men, most honest men, even if they were right about what they were telling me (that there’s no difference between a taxi libre and a taxi sitio, which is a complete lie), would recognize the concern of two young American woman getting into an unknown taxi after reading about the crime among taxi drivers in Mexico City. But not this one, he was a supreme asshole.

The pendejo tripped one of those rare wires in my genetic makeup and really started to piss me off. I wanted to punch him out.

“We’re not fucking around either!” I yelled back at him in Spanish as he stood with a group of men badmouthing us. “We’re two women and we have to be careful when we’re traveling….and we’re not taking this taxi.”

I led Cathy back inside to the kiosk to demand that someone else help us. My heart rate was racing. It’s rare that I get angry but I refuse to compromise when it comes to our safety.

We were promptly taken by another man to another taxi, a sitio taxi driven by a nice man who took us directly to our hotel and not to an abandoned warehouse parking lot….

All the way to our hotel, our hearts were racing with fear that we weren’t heading in the real direction of the city now. We were both so grateful to arrive at our exact location. We still don’t know what might have happened if we’d gone with the other driver.

Alls well that ends at your hotel, I’d like to say about taxis in Mexico City.

Our hostel (Hostel Moneda) was minimally decorated but its location and value were excellent. We only paid $30 a night ($15 each) for a private room and bathroom just a block off of the zocalo, or central plaza of historic downtown Mexico City (dorm beds only cost 10 bucks!). Along with our room’s price was included free internet use, free tours to the local museums, discounts on tours to the pyramids, AND, our favorite, FREE breakfasts and dinners (salty, starchy, but filling) on their rooftop terrace and bar overlooking the zocalo and Mexico City.

Another enticing aspect to the splendid view of the cathedral and city lights was eating among some awfully damn fine looking backpackers from Israel, Europe, and America (Hirschegger, eat your heart out!). Unfortunately, Cathy and I both realized in the bright glare of the daylight, that most of the cute backpackers were young enough to be our nephews. One sweet Austrian guy developed a crush on Cathy and kept finding us to ask about visiting her in the states one day.

Within hours of our arrival we decided to push our comfort zones a bit and ride the metro through the heart of Mexico City AT NIGHT. It was a rude awakening to ride the metro in Mexico City after walking among a sea of gringos in San Miguel de Allende. We bought our 50 cent tickets and became enveloped in a wave of Mexicans during the heart of rush hour traveling for hours to get back to their homes. Sweaty people pushed up against us and fought for space on the metro whenever the doors opened at each stop.

It was incredibly humid and stuffy but didn’t feel terribly unsafe, just crowded and uncomfortable. We didn’t see any other foreigners among thousands of faces.

During the day, the city took on an entirely different face. Mexico City, like Los Angeles but twice the size and population, is made up of dozens of different neighborhoods with their own distinct personalities. Our favorite area was Coyoacan, where Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera lived, loved, painted, and entertained their friends. Their “Casa Azul” was an inspiring complex circling a courtyard and filled with their books and art collections that inspired their life’s work.

Coyoacan’s streets were lined with giant trees and purple jacarandas in full bloom. The central plaza was filled with hip, alta cocina restaurants, bars, and cafes where an intellectual and artsy community of Mexicans gather to socialize.
We ate exquisite meals….delicate pinwheels of chicken stuffed with squash flower blossoms and cheese in a white wine cream sauce with fresh herbs, churros and hot chocolate, chipotle fondue, and a banana, sweetened condensed milk and cinnamon crepe to celebrate my birthday later this month.

In the afternoon (while Cathy worked at a copy shop on her imminent move to the East Coast), I strolled through the market looking at fresh fruit, vegetables, and papier mache flower garlands made to celebrate the coming spring.

The streets in Mexico and throughout Latin America are lined with street vendors, a part of what’s referred to as the unregulated “informal economy.” This is what I love about Mexico. Buying hot churros off the street. Buying beaded necklaces handmade by a woman from Puebla for $4.

I talked to a grandmother selling giant bags of nuts in every color, shape, and flavor which she had roasted and flavored herself and piled into a giant wheelbarrow cart: Salted peanuts, toffee peanuts, chile and lemon peanuts, pumpkin seeds, sweet pumpkin seeds, banana chips, chile banana chips, cashews, spicy cashews….

I bought three bags filled with banana chips and sweet pumpkin seeds (my favorite!) for 45 pesos ($4.50). We shared all three bags with everyone on our tour group the next day.


During the hottest day of the week we had the bright idea to go visit Teotihuacan, a famous ancient city containing the third largest pyramid in the world, and one of the largest and most impressive pre-hispanic civilizations in the New World.

In a nutshell, Teotihuacan is an enigma to anthropologists and archaeologists alike. During the height of its power, Teotihuacan was the sixth largest city in the entire world and eclipsed the size and expansiveness of all other European cities at that time. It was home to anywhere from 125,000 to 200,000 people of which we know very little. During the eighth century, the city was burnt and destroyed and there’s little evidence why. Although we know much about the structures, archaeologists have no idea what language these people spoke and who they were the descendants of: they actually preceded the Aztecs, who later named the city, “City of the Gods” or “The Place Where Men Became Gods.”
Like the Aztecs, the people of Teotihuacan believed in regular human sacrifices. The people of Teotihuacan believed that, unless they appeased the god of the sun, that the sun would not come the following morning. Cool idea to read about now but it sucked if you were a virgin maiden or prestigious warrior at the time. Priests conducted human sacrifices twice a day, once at sunset and once at sunrise. Some humans sacrificed were volunteers and others were chosen because of their prestige in the city or because they were being punished for having broken a law (like drinking the alcoholic beverage pulque, which was outlawed until you turned 52 years old).

Those that volunteered to be sacrificed believed that their passage to heaven would be expedited. In the Teotihuacan version of heaven, two things were certain: they’d have all the water they needed and they’d have an infinite supply of pulque with which to intoxicate themselves.

WARNING: the following paragraph is graphic:

During the ritualized sacrifices, the priests would lay the man, woman, or child out on a slab and cut their stomach open with a long obsidian knife. They would then pull the victim’s heart out while it was still beating. I won’t get any more graphic than this but I’ll just say that, according to our guide, the Mexican dish posole was originally made with human flesh.

Another mystery of Teotihuacan, besides their sudden downfall (hmm, how about a revolt by a bunch of woman saying, “what the f&*%? Why don’t we try a day without any human sacrifices and let’s see if the the sun still comes up tomorrow? Then we’ll know if you priests are all full of s**t.”) is that the pyramids contain a layer made from thick slabs of Brazilian mica which was brought from over 2,000 miles away. This would be inconceivable if not for the fact that the people of Teotihuacan didn’t use the wheel in any of their construction (They believed that using the image of their Sun God was sacreligious and would anger him).

That night as we walked back to our hostel, we passed several groups of people reenacting the Aztecs’ (who lived and developed the valley which would become Mexico City) dances to live drumming. They wore seeds around their ankles and shins and waved sage smoke over their bodies much like the Native Americans do in the U.S.

On our last day we took an afternoon boat ride along the canals of Xochimilco. Unbeknownst to many Americans, Mexico City was built by the Aztecs on a giant lake bed which they arranged into a network of canals and an extensive irrigation system. Today, over 180 kilometers of these canals remain and Mexicans from around the country descend on these lanchas to hire mariachi bands and boat guides to take them along the tree-lined canals past farms and small homes.

Since there was no one else around at the time, Cathy and I hired a whole boat for ourselves for $30 (which could have accommodated twenty-five of our best friends and several bottles of tequila and a mariachi band) to linger for a while in the shade from the afternoon sun. We floated to a small farm where a man came on board and offered us lunch. We chose the best pollo con mole negro (made with chilies, cinnamon, nuts, raisins, and Mexican chocolate) that I’ve had this past year, a plate of hot corn tortillas, and frijoles.

We bought roasted corn with chile and lime from a man selling straight from his canoe. Elote (the Mexican word for corn) is the one thing that ironically, I think really sucks in Mexico. It’s usually tough, tasteless, and smothered in mayonnaise. I don’t get it, especially since corn is indigenous to Mexico and you’d think they’d get it right.

I wanted to like this old guy’s corn. He had his little wood stove and this giant heap of beautiful white corn lying perfectly lined up in a heap with a bowl of freshly cut limes. I’m a corn fed Hoosier girl so if there’s one thing I know, it’s a good piece of corn on the cob that pops in your mouth with its sweet crispness.

And let me tell you, the corn on the cob in Mexico sucks. And so did his. But we ate it, wished him good luck for the afternoon in his business, and thanked him for the corn.

On our last day in Mexico City, our taxi driver was late picking us up to take us to the bus station for our return to San Miguel de Allende.

He explained that our timing to leave was bad because today was “street cleaning” day and that we’d have to walk two blocks to get to his taxi, since the authorities wouldn’t let him park on any of the nearby streets. We didn’t really get the origin of his annoyance until we turned a corner down one of the streets.
There were dozens of men and women shouting, laughing, and brooming giant suds across the wet street. Cathy and I gingerly navigated our way in flip flops across the street which had momentarily become a river of suds and dirty water.

A young guy in a muscle shirt rode on top of a giant truck gleefully aiming a firehose at anyone left out in the street. If someone escaped his aim and darted across the street, he’d changed positions and spray them down on the other side of the street before they could escape.

It was a pretty fun scene until we realized that, like everyone else, we were trapped, too, and had nowhere to go to escape THE HOSE.

I felt like I was trying to dodge deadly lazer blasts in War of the Worlds. I was carrying everything that means anything to me in my backpack (including my trip journal and my photo hard drive with 1500 photos from our trip in Mexico). To make matters worse, my precious Canon 20D digital camera was dangling around my neck, unprotected and exposed.

We narrowly missed his spray, ducking into a courtyard just in time as the water pelted several young girls instead. As soon as the truck had passed, everyone moved out into the street again pushing the suds along with their brooms.

A couple of guys shouted to us as we walked past. They were getting a kick out of watching two gringas trying to balance our backpacks as we slipped along in flip flops beneath our monstrous loads.

“Guera! Guera! Mamacita! Come here and kiss me!” they called out to us.

I was trying not to think about all the bodily fluids and junk that must be floating over my ankles when I heard a loud slap behind me. A spray of water hit my skirt and the back of my legs.

One of the guys who had been running after us had slipped on the soap and fallen right on his back in two inches of water. His friends had forgotten about the two clumsy gringas and were laughing their butts off at him instead.

I had to laugh at the guy, too. He looked like an upturned turtle.

What I love about Mexico is that you never know what’s going to happen next. The best approach is to always have a healthy sense of humor.

And really good flip flops.

Con amor,