MEXICO CITY: IN LOVE

Reader, I am so excited to tell you about all the wonders I found in Mexico, the delicious foods I had, the tequilas I drank, the gorgeous kittens I met, the kindly strangers who welcomed me into their nation, the cobblestone streets, the crumbling buildings, the hot nights, the pyramids, the ruins, the atmosphere of being somewhere so vibrant and alive. I have very rarely loved a place more, and it feels odd to not be there. Mexico City felt completely like home. In fact…but I’m getting ahead of myself.

My story starts back in Los Angeles, clasping my new, extra-large passport to my bosom like the key to the world that it is. I was inordinately proud that my passport had extra pages. I nearly filled up the last one, and had I been an adult when it was issued, I think it would have been completely stuffed with stamps. This one will be much the same, I hope, filled with stamps from foreign countries and visa stickers from Egypt. I can’t wait to get back there. I was not nearly so amused with my passport photo — as ever — but this time around it actually looks like me, so I shouldn’t have any stupid comments from airport employees. That was a worthy trade off I felt.

LAX is easily one of my favorite airports. For whatever reason — and it really doesn’t make sense — LAX is supremely efficient. It doesn’t take much time to go through security, and before you know it you’re sitting in your terminal. I had a mission; I needed to find something to eject the SIM card out of my phone. I had lost the paper clip I use, so I finally settled on an overpriced sewing kit that I found at a convenience store. This was good preparation, because you all surely remember what happened to me the last time I was abroad without a sewing kit. You may remember me spelunking through the Valley of the Kings and then forming a massive tear in my pantaloons at the Ramesseum? It was mortifying and my entire thigh was on prominent display; other sensitive regions of my anatomy were nearly revealed to everybody on the ferry crossing the Nile. That was stressful, so I didn’t mind at all buying a sewing kit to keep in my bag at all times.

It wasn’t long until we were boarding the plane and suddenly the States were a fading memory. I was gripped by the thrill of travel as we soared through the air. It is the greatest thing in the world, the freedom of escape, the glory of getting away, the delight of the unknown.

I was, I have to admit, somewhat ashamed of my lackluster knowledge of Mexico. I mean, I’m not completely ignorant of it, but I have spent decades believing that Mexico City was in a desert. Turns out no. And because of where I grew up and where I work, I’ve been exposed to Hispanic culture every day. I frequent Mexican grocery stores, speak pretty awful (but intelligible) Spanish, and often visit the taco stands around town. Still, this hardly prepares one for an entire country, let alone one of the largest cities in the world.

Would it be wonderful or would I hate it? Would I want to stay curled up in my apartment or would I want to go out wandering through the streets? Would I make friends, would I stray far from my area of town, would I find any food to eat, would I get sick, would I get kidnapped by the cartel and held for ransom? I truly wondered all these things, especially that cartel thing. It sounded so dramatic. What a great story for future cocktail parties!

For whatever reason, we are led to believe that the streets of Mexico are infested with gang members hoping to do us wrong. This didn’t prove to be true or even reasonable, much to my relief, but as I was flying through the air, I couldn’t help wondering about cocaine smuggling and the seedier bits of Tepito. It doesn’t matter how worldly or open-minded you think you are, the differences in a new place cause worry. Even though I love Egypt, I still wonder what could go wrong if I was in Minya. In Paris, I worry about living next to a terrorist cell. And when I’m in Turin, I’ll always wonder if the earth is about to crack open in a devastating quake. It’s a strange quirk of the human mind. When we plan for the worst, I think, life is even better because our negative expectations fail to be met.

I was, I admit, charmed at the start of this trip. All of the people on the plane that I spoke to were completely kind. It was bizarre. The people I sat beside were some of the nicest I have ever met anywhere on Earth and gave me tons of suggestions for places to see and things to eat. I was touched by the enthusiasm for their hometown. So many people make fun of where they live — a way that I used to be — and downplay the lovely bits of their ordinary lives, but these two were so enthusiastic. It was addicting, and I wanted to see everything they mentioned. It would take me three lengthy trips, I think, to even make a dent on the list. I couldn’t wait to try.

When we were close to the airport, I took out my sewing kit and switched the SIM card on my phone. I had ordered a card on Amazon before leaving, and even though it cost more than it would have cost me to procure in Mexico City — by a lot — the convenience of the SIM that I bought was worth it. The service was guaranteed, and if I had any trouble, they had customer service online and over the phone in English. I would appreciate this anywhere I go; I love new languages, but I don’t much care for trying to figure out phone plans in languages I don’t grasp. There’s no fun in that.

The plane landed without fanfare — and blissfully nobody clapped! — and I was soon making my way to the doors. My seat mate became my best friend in Mexico, and we chatted all the way to customs and passport control. There is an extraordinarily strange system for getting your possessions into the country. It isn’t explained, and I don’t know how it could ever be successful. When you pass through customs, you are put in front of a machine with a big button. It feels like part of a game show. The security officer nods at you and you press the button. Then the screen above will either flash red or green, if it’s green, you’re free to go, but if it should turn red, then your belongings will be searched. I wonder if there was somebody in charge of this or if it was really completely random? It was bizarre.

Another oddity of Mexican travel that I was concerned about was the slip of paper that is given to you off of the entry pass you fill out with you flight information on the plane. Passport control takes half and then gives you the remainder to use as an exit ticket out of the country. I’ve never done this before or heard of it, but I’m told that if you lose the paper it takes about a day’s worth of effort to get a new one and the airport is really difficult to manage. So I tucked it into my freshly stamped passport and made my way into town.

I thought that I would take the Metro to my apartment, but my friend talked me out of it. I think this was the only advice he gave me that I don’t agree with, but we will get into why later. Instead, I ordered an Uber, and a few minutes later, I was zipping through the chaotic streets.

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I loved it completely.

It was everything I have been needing. I felt like a complete fool that there has been a vibrant world so near to me and that I was utterly and completely ignorant of. I knew Mexico existed, obviously. I went once for a few hours in the last century, and I recall almost nothing about it. I remember crossing the border from Arizona, and I remember sitting on a donkey, and I vaguely recall getting tacos and haggling for a hand carved dolphin statuette. I have no idea why I wanted that so badly, but I did, and I still have it. I don’t much care for dolphins.

Mexico City was a whirlwind around me. I was immediately struck by how busy the city was, how many people packed the sidewalks, how many cars honked and sped, all of the shops and street venders. What delighted me most was the color. There were posters and signs everywhere and they were bright and stunning. Everything was vaguely haphazard, and I thrive in such a situation. America is so sterile in comparison. Europe is much the same. Everything is in shades of grey and neatly aligned. But in Mexico City a veritable riot of colors festooned from every surface. I prefer life that way.

I drank in the scenery as we left the airport, growing more eager with each block we passed. I could hardly wait to be out there amongst these new people, poking into shops, eating all the food I could find. I was desperate for salsa.

My Uber driver and I could only speak smidgens of each other’s language, so we relied on apps on our phone to communicate. I thought this was the definition of charming. I love the past, of course, and I crave the delights of the ancient world, but I truly love the technological innovations of the present and the future. When I was but a lad, in the last century, you had to learn a language to communicate in it. Now, you can speak into your phone and the phone will read it properly to the native speaker. It’s fabulous. It will even listen and translate back into English. So, there I was, talking into my phone and talking to my driver who was incredibly warm and friendly. We chatted a bit about how busy everything was and then there was a huge graffiti portrait of the United States president looking like the buffoon that he is. I reassured my driver that I didn’t support him or anything he believes in and that I thought he was one of the worst things to happen to the safety of the planet or the perpetuity of the human race. We were fast friends after that.

The roads began to narrow as we entered the Centro Histórico, and I had to stop myself from sighing dreamily at every new building. I hadn’t stepped out of the car, yet, but I could already tell that this place was the most wondrous blend of Europe and Egypt. The chaos in the street reminded me of Cairo with the seeming lack of traffic laws. The food vendors on every corner reflected my glorious days in Luxor wandering through the topsy-turvy streets after the sun set and vendors hawked their wares. And the buildings were beautifully old and decaying and I thought of the most gorgeous areas of Paris. I was in love.

And then the car pulled up to my street and I was out in the world for the first time. I was thrilled because of the message I received from the host of the apartment I rented on AirBNB. I felt like I was about to enter a thrilling detective mystery: “I won’t be here when you arrive; I’ll be in England for August. When you arrive on Tuesday ring the blue and white doorbell. My cleaner, Blanca, will meet you. She only speaks Spanish.”

I was, quite frankly, giddy.

I surely read more into this exchange than there was, but I crave these moments away from normalcy. Life’s routines are fine, but they bore me after a spell. Once in awhile I need to be thrust into a new experience, so I was thrilled to meet Blanca and talk to her in my mediocre Spanish.

I made my way down the short Calle Echeveste and found the appropriate door.

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The blue and white doorbell was there, I rang it, and then I waited, full of anticipation of what was to come. After a moment, the massive door dramatically creaked open and a very short woman stepped out of the shadows. “Benjameen?”

I beamed. “Si. Blanca?”

She nodded curtly and then ripped the doorbell off of the doorframe. I hadn’t been expecting this, so I was quite surprised to find that it was affixed there with Velcro. I stepped across the threshold of the building and found myself in one of the most peaceful oases I have ever encountered. Three buildings wrapped around a cobblestone courtyard. In the center was an ancient freshwater well where the inhabitants do their laundry. A balcony wound around the upper levels. Potted plants were everywhere and a clothesline stretched across the far wall with beautifully patterned clothing waving gently on the breeze. I drank in the imagery, I was artistically ecstatic. Blanca gave me a small smile as she made her way to one of the doors.

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It was unlocked and she pushed the huge door open so that I could pass through. The apartment that I would be calling home for the next two weeks was simply perfect.

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It was not massive, but it had everything I needed. The floor was made of polished black stone that caught the light pouring in through the open door. The kitchen was ancient but functional with the most gorgeous gas range. A bright orange sofa sat beside an exposed rock wall that really brought a cheery color to the apartment. A set of wooden stairs led up to a loft where a comfortable mattress formed the bedroom. I couldn’t have been happier. I knew I made a good choice, but I was still settling in. I wondered if this magic would last?

Oftentimes when I visit someplace for the first time, I get this odd depression that lasts for a few days. After experiencing it so often, I think I have finally figured out what’s going on. I am simply overwhelmed by all that I don’t know. I have no grasp of the streets or how the transportation works. I haven’t gotten acclimated to the local grocery store. I don’t know what my preferred restaurants and bakeries are. It’s the dumbest stress in the world, but I didn’t even have an inkling of it in that moment.

Blanca showed me the basics, we chatted in elementary Spanish, and then I was all alone for the first time in Mexico City.

I unpacked my bag while listening to mariachi music on a little stereo in the apartment, and as my favorite, “Solamente una Vez” played softly, I was quite swept away.

I was completely content. In the courtyard, Blanca was doing laundry by hand, vigorously scrubbing shirts and jeans before hanging them up on the line. The sun was sinking lower casting everything in golden light. The air was still and warm. I was in the center of one of the world’s largest cities, but I felt for all the world that I was in a little village. I was charmed.

And then reader, I met Bitch Cat.

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This isn’t her real name. She doesn’t have a real name, she’s just a feral cat who has chosen this apartment complex to be her home base. She’s lithe and muscular, and very small, and very mean. I loved her at once. She let me pat her head a few times before swatting my hand away and glaring. She didn’t run away, though, from her perch atop the well, and we stared at each other for some time. Blanca watched this exchange with unveiled amusement.

You don’t drink the water in Mexico City, but there weren’t any bottles in the apartment. There was this vial of something that supposedly purifies the tap water, but my Spanish wasn’t good enough to fully understand the directions. I decided to instead ask Blanca in my terrible Spanish. Somehow we understood each other, there was a shop on the corner that sold water. So I set out, but I got distracted as I so often do.

You see, reader, the area where I stayed is utterly beautiful. And I was captivated by every new sight that met my eyes. I needed to wander and explore and see all that I could. I wasn’t at all worried; I wanted to soak up more than the local shop. So I went where my whims carried me. Calle Regina was ahead of me, and this is a glorious pedestrian street filled with cafés and benches to sit and watch the world pass by. I walked and I walked and I wandered and I was madly in love. It was absolutely beautiful with palm trees and deciduous trees swaying in the breeze. Cascading vines of flowers fell from balconies and clung to concrete walls. Nearly every exposed surface was covered in elegant graffiti displaying everything from sugar skulls to Frida Kahlo to Aztec symbology.

I finally found myself near the Zocalo, the biggest square in town and the heart of the Aztec empire hundreds of years ago. I was wrong that I couldn’t love Mexico City more.

Completely wrong.

Night was fast approaching and the skies were deep blue, all of the lights burned a decadent warm yellow, and the crowds were gently illuminated. I was immediately obsessed with this spot. The buildings surrounding the square have stunning pedestrian galleries. The arched walkway, the wrought iron doorways, and the elegantly dressed people recalled my favorite parts of Turin. I stopped to stare at the Cathedral Metropolitan, a sprawling, rambling mess of a cathedral — a feast for the eyes — and I could have cried. I felt like such an idiot.

How could I have ever been so stupid? Why had I ignored Mexico for twenty-seven years of my life? Was I an ethnocentric idiot, too, like the man we have to acknowledge as president? I hoped to all the gods in history that I was nothing like him. Mexico City truly felt like Europe. I felt like I could have been in an Italian piazza instead of a square in North America. I knew then that I was at home. I would come here a million times more.

Tribal drums sounded to my right. Curiosity carried me to the source of the sound. Imagine my delight and surprise to see a crowd of men and women and children dressed in leather and feathers dancing, shaking instruments, and chanting. It was fantastic. I watched and watched and watched, completely enraptured like a great majority of the audience. It was wonderful. I don’t know how long I sat there, letting the music wash over me, letting my mind wander, letting me slip back through the millennia. I was no longer in Mexico City, this was Tenochtitlán again and I was in the age of the Aztecs. That idiot, Christopher Columbus, hadn’t arrived yet to decimate the Caribbean and begin a cataclysmic chain of events that would lead to Cortés marching into the Aztec capital to reign with death and destruction. No, it was still the glorious old world and I adored it.

The wind was gentle, and I couldn’t help being utterly tranquil. After a spell the dancers departed, many sliding back into their customary Western garb and dissipating into the crowd.

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My journey carried on and night had truly fallen. All the buildings in the monstrously large square were illuminated from within. The people on the street were cast in shadows, and it was all too beautiful. Look, I know I said it was beautiful over a dozen times now, but I was truly gobsmacked by the glories around me. I never knew all that I never knew. This was a stunning cosmopolitan, and I understood that I had only been there for a few hours and that all my impressions were a bit hazy with wanderlust, but still…I was filled with happiness. I was enraptured by the most decadent contentment.

My walk took me to the tall metal gates that protected the Cathedral Metropolitan, and I stared up at the massive structure with wonder. It was no less stunning than Notre Dame in Paris, and it was so very much larger. I studied the sculptures lovingly, wondering which saints were soaring up high above me.

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Hunger finally gnawed at my innards and I knew that it was time to do my favorite bit of cultural exploration: eating.

I looked at the menus of several restaurants before making my determination to stop at a little cafe in a quiet street off the Zocalo called La Purroquia. It was bustling with quiet energy and the waiter was kind. He liked to spin plates on his hand for no apparent reason, and he didn’t seem to be aware he was doing it, so that was odd to watch. I ordered something that was translated to “Divorced Eggs,” which I ordered for the name alone. I didn’t know what it could possibly be, but I was quite thrilled by the idea. On a plate of black beans, two eggs were fried and topped with salsa. One side was a red salsa and the other was a green tomatillo salsa. Together, they were divinity itself. I also ordered a beer since I knew how to say “cerveza,” and the waiter recommended one that you pour into a glass full of tamarind paste. I like tamarind, reader, but I can’t offer the same recommendation. No thanks. Never again. Sticking to wine.

Dinner was dreamy as the people slowly strolled along the quiet street, oblivious to how lucky they were to call Mexico City their home. I envied them greatly. Reader, I have learned to appreciate Iowa more and more, but it will really never feel like the place where I belong. We have culture and great food and a good art museum and diversity, and all the things I love, but it lacks antiquity. That’s what I crave the most, a glorious connection to times long gone. I want to see buildings that were here long before my people were even a twinkle in the eye of my ancestors. I want to walk the streets that people have done for hundreds of years, not for ten years. I’m emotionally and somewhat physically repelled by modernity, and so I was at my very best here. I was so happy. I’m going to say that a lot as we go over my two wondrous weeks in this perfect town.

Get ready. I had the best time.

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