MEXICO CITY: Museum Time

I woke up gasping for air, wondering if the Grim Reaper had finally come. I didn’t really feel like dying, but I quickly rationalized that I’d led a life worth remembering, and I was fairly certain several people would host a funereal roast for me. So I accepted my mortal end. It was chic enough to die in Mexico City.

I couldn’t breathe. Like at all. This was panic inducing until I realized that I was still functioning, so death really couldn’t be imminent. I recalled something I noticed on Snapchat the other day but ignored, the altitude of Mexico City is quite different from what I’m accustomed to, so, I googled and discovered that people occasionally have issues breathing when they vacation in Mexico City, particularly if they do any hiking or pyramid climbing — both things I would soon be doing. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ Thankfully, once your body becomes acclimated to the new altitude, you rarely have an issue. I only noticed it in the mornings, and it was just something that I eventually became accustomed to.

Wide awake after watching my life pass before my eyes and wondering if I should write some jokes to be told at my funeral, I got up and made coffee and enjoyed the solitude of the courtyard. I love a good courtyard, reader, always have. This one was like a cloister, and I found it the very height of serenity. A neighbor would occasionally pass through and offer a kindly “buenos dias.” I sipped my coffee and read a fantastic guide for expats that the owner of the apartment left behind. This, in addition to everything else, convinced me that I would someday need to make a move to this enticing city.

It seems, if the book is to be believed, that almost everybody has a maid. This suited me right down to the ground, as Diana Vreeland once wrote. All of my long life — for I feel very elderly as you well know — I have long longed for household staff. Nothing would be more elegant, in my opinion, than having somebody work for me. I wouldn’t have to spend hours cleaning and stressing about the garden. I would have somebody to make me coffee and martinis when I needed them, and I would be able to focus on my interests rather than the mundane necessities of life. I think I will get there someday, but I doubt I can ever afford a staff in the United States. I can in Egypt or Mexico, it appears. I think it will be decadent. Even if it’s the last year of my life, I will be living my very best life with my beloved household staff.

Anyway, there was an entire chapter on how to deal with maids. I found it thrilling.

I also learned about how to arrange gas deliveries and why you shouldn’t bother with the mail in Mexico. It apparently isn’t very reliable. I didn’t believe this when I read it, because it sounded very pretentious in the guidebook, but I never did see a post office or a post box the entire time I was in Mexico City. I certainly had my eyes peeled; I had written postcards to friends and family but never even found a stamp. It was very odd. If anybody has any suggestions for me, please do let me know in the comments below. That will be very appreciated for my many future trips to Mexico.

As I was reading and sipping my excellent coffee, I was trying to ingratiate myself with the local cats. Bitch Cat was there, but she was reluctant to come near me. Patron had no such qualms. He was living for my Walmart treats. He was so enamored of these salmon nibbles that he did something remarkable. He went and fetched his sister. I mean this literally. He went to the door of the apartment where he lived and squawked and out came the most gorgeous cat of them all.

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She was friendly and kind and loved being petted and loved treats and I christened her Little Chiffon because she could have been the less fluffy twin of my sister’s cat, Chiffon. I was in a state of ecstasy, reader. I belong in a world surrounded by felines.

I got ready for the day and figured out how to get to the most visited museum in Mexico, the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, which is dedicated to the history of the various civilizations and cultures that have lived in Mexico. It was one of the highest rated excursions on TripAdvisor, and I thought it would be advantageous to understand more of the city’s history before I wandered around for a couple weeks. It’s so helpful to me to understand the past because this informs why the world is the way it is today.

To get there, I decided to take the Metro. My friends from the plane and the Internet had both tried to make me wary of this mode of transportation. They said that they were packed and that I would be robbed and that it could be unsafe. I thought this sounded a bit ridiculous because I’m a veteran of the 14 line in Paris. There’s nothing worse than a busy 14 train. You literally have to stand on one leg sometimes to fit in, like some kind of absurd flamingo. It’s hot and stuffy and allegedly people are ready to steal your iPhone at all times. I’ve never been robbed, but I have certainly been packed in like a sardine.

Here’s a good overview:

Going underground was thrilling; there is nothing that I love more than public transportation. I’m the Joe Biden of subways. One of my dream projects is a travel app that centers on the Paris Métro. It would have the best bakeries, sites, architecture, museums, parks, and whatnot described that are within walking distance from each Métro’s entrance. I think this would be tremendously useful. For visitors to that wonderful town that don’t know their way around, I think it could be an invaluable resource for them. I once stopped at every exit on the 1 line. It was a thrilling two day…

The nearest entrance to me was only a five minute walk from my apartment’s front door, so I hoped that it would work well for me. Such a convenience if it would. After going down, and passing by several charming little shops that I wanted to poke my nose into, I could hardly believe the price for a trip was only five pesos. Reader, five pesos is next to nothing. It’s like less than a US quarter for a trip all the way across one of the largest cities in human civilization. In Paris it costs nearly three euros for a single trip. I cackled as I bought my ticket from the counter. Five pesos…basically free.

I had a very useful app on my iPhone that helped guide me where I was going and detailed the various exchanges I would need to make. Only one, which was great. The station was set up just like it had been in Paris. Every stop had a name, not some ridiculous number like in New York, and each stop only housed one train, not some absurd number of various lines that make no sense like in Chicago. I was overjoyed. The interior was comfortable, and crowded, but it was hardly a nightmare. The train took off with a whoosh and it wasn’t long before I was changing trains.

Compared to Les Halles in Paris, this was the height of elegance. The halls were wide and spacious, and reader, there was shopping everywhere! In Europe, you only find shops in the main stations or really popular stops. In Mexico, nearly every stop was filled with vendors. You could buy McDonald’s ice cream — which was frequently a stand-alone shop here — and Domino’s pizza and agua frescas and SIM cards and find boot polishers, bakeries, tacos, popcorn, and toyshops and clothing stores and tailors and literally everything you could dream up. I was in a state of absolute rapture!

Looking back on my trip to Mexico, the thing that I loved the very most, the thing that I enjoyed most was something somewhat intangible. The thrill that coursed through me was the vibrancy of the city. Everywhere I went, every person I met, everything I did was imbued with passion. The culture of Mexico was everywhere. It was almost a living entity that flowed through every inch of town. That’s probably why I thought the Metro was divine. But maybe not? Like I made mention before, I really do have a passion for underground trains. In another life, I quite think that I would like to be a train driver in Paris or Mexico City or Berlin or Cairo or anywhere. Not London, I’m really not a fan of the London Underground. It is a behemoth and I think they’re uncomfortable. And, I suppose I don’t know about Cairo. I’ve never been on their underground system, but I will try it out the next time I go, which I hope is very soon. I need to go see the Egyptian Museum again one last time before it’s switched over to the Giza plateau. I wonder if that will change things in that derelict area? I’m very off topic…

The Metro was perfect, and I was particularly charmed that the first car was reserved for women and children. I was appalled, obviously, that this was a necessity, but I really appreciated that this was an established precaution to avoid sexual harassment and assault. You often hear that the government of Mexico is doing little for the people, and that might be true, but there little touches like this that are a nod to their impact.

The train deposited me at the Bosque de Chapultepec, a huge park in Mexico City. It houses the only castle that has ever been occupied by actual royals in North America. Unfortunately, that has been put on my list for the next trip to Mexico. There was just so much to do that I never managed to go on a tour, and I never did have the chance to visit the zoo which was also in the park. I was there solely for the Museo Nacional de Antropologia, but it was not at first apparent how I would get there. I decided just to wander, and that probably wasn’t the best use of my time, but I enjoyed my explorations. Like everywhere else, there were vendors selling everything. I got a snow cone and thrived.

I walked and I walked, and once I was away from the hustle and bustle of the busy streets, the Bosque de Chapultepec was charming and quiet. It reminded me of the Parc des Tuileries in Paris, and I was sighing rapturously. I very much went the wrong way.

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After what felt like an hour, and after I had begun to perspire quite heavily, I found the entrance to the museum. It was a big and beautiful building and museum fever gripped me at once. Personally, few places in the world fill me with greater happiness than a museum. (Or an underground train. Sometimes, especially in Mexico City, you get both! But I’ll talk about that another time.) It doesn’t matter much want the subject matter is, there is no greater pleasure than slowly wandering through a quiet space and reading little bits of information. If I don’t work in a museum at some point of my life, well, I think quite honestly I have failed to live up to my own potential.

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I was, reader, deeply impressed by this museum. Not only was it beautifully designed with vast and well-documented artifacts, it had perhaps the cleanest glass displays that I have ever seen in my life. I don’t know if you have visited many museums in your life, but this is something that is truly amazing. Wherever I go, even in the nicest museums such as the Louvre or the British Museum or even the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the displays are hideously smudged by hand prints, or worse, forehead grease. You would be alarmed, reader, by the number of people who for reasons I cannot possibly understand, decide that they must be as close to an artifact as they possibly can. Instead of just looking, they press their face to the display as if they can force themselves closer to the art. Do they not understand that the glass is there? And, to my consternation, this isn’t behavior that is only done by children or enthusiastic scholars, no, people of all ranks of life are acting like they can pass through the molecular structure of glass as if they are Moses parting the Red Sea. I took a packet of Windex wipes with me to the Met the last time I was there. They thought I was insane. I was asked to stop. Rude.

But the glass at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia looked like it was barely there. I don’t know if people are more respectful of display cases in Mexico or if they have a cleaning staff that is constantly on the lookout for grime. I can’t offer any evidence of this being true, I didn’t see anybody wiping the displays ever in that massive place.

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But enough about cleaning. (But it was so impressive!) The museum has four huge wings that surround a central courtyard where people can sit, admire some outside displays, or have a meal at the café. At the entry is a huge water feature. It’s like a totem pole that has water shooting out of the top. It’s not a torrent or anything that will soak you from afar, but it recalls the sounds of a rainstorm. One can almost imagine they are in the middle of the rainforest and about to come across an ancient Mayan ruin.

The museum begins by introducing the story of humanity and its diaspora from Africa. I was triggered by the Neanderthal displays because the men weren’t deeply handsome and I have a bizarrely high amount of this species’ DNA in my own. That’s still mortifying, but the more I research the less embarrassed I feel. I recently read an excellent piece about cave art in National Geographic History. Some scholars are beginning to believe that this ancient group of hominids was capable of producing art. They were not the barbarians that the generalized image of them portrays!

In addition to this, there was an overview of different ancient cultures, and I was particularly delighted by the single piece of Egyptian art I saw on this trip. There was a metal ibis statue and I thought it was dreamy.

Carrying on, I was quickly delighted by the Aztec remains.

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Sacrificial altar. 

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Death mask.

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Representation of an Aztec god.

I have made mention of this in the past, but I’m still annoyed at my lackluster awareness of the history of these people. Their ruins and pyramids and artifacts are but a short jaunt from me, and yet I continue (and will always do so) to dream of the abandoned city of Akhetaten in faraway Egypt. In the many museums I have visited, I rarely encounter Mayan or Aztec artifacts. If I do, they tend to be very small collections usually composed of recreations. Here, though, was an embarrassment of riches.

In one room, there was an entire temple that had been reconstructed from ruins that archaeologists unearthed. I suppose some of this design was left open to interpretation since so much of it was damaged over the years, but it was monumentally impressive.

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It was really fabulous to finally see the giant Aztec calendar on display.

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Here it is next to another piece of art to give you some perspective on its size:

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Who is she? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Remember a couple years ago when the world was supposed to end because of some crazy misinterpretation of this artifact? Ah, those were simpler times. I was in Paris ready to be raptured, but nothing ever came of it. Glad for that, I’d quite like to live forever.

All around me were wonderful things, and I loved it, but I did feel a bit stupid. I didn’t grasp the significance of everything. I don’t think a person is supposed to really, but I am so accustomed to knowing what I’m looking at. I must learn more about ancient Mesoamerica. I try, and I do try, but there is just so much. I know of very few archaeological programs that focus on this part of the world. How elitist of us! So, I sat and stared at everything around me for a while in a giant room full of statues and bowls and remarkable reliefs of the gods. I decided not to beat myself up for my lack of knowledge. It wasn’t my fault, but I decided I would take the blame. Immediately I downloaded a couple books about this region’s history and felt a bit better about myself.

I could go on for hours describing the Mayan art and the Aztec carvings and the Spanish armor and the Mexican costumes, but I won’t. Just know that I had a wonderful time and saw fascinating things, like a recreation of Pacal’s burial chamber and beautiful stele, and oh it was just wonderful. Somehow, and I keep trying to figure out how, I missed the Olmec artifacts. This culture is endlessly fascinating, so I’ll be sure to go back again.

Oh, but one thing I was absolutely thrilled to see was a collection of Mayan codices. When the Spanish conquered this part of the world, they burned the majority of the sacred writings of the crushed civilizations. Very few of the books ancient Mayan scribes wrote exist now because of the barbarity of the conquistadors. Thankfully there are a few still in the world. And because at heart, I’m truly an archaeologist specializing in philology, seeing the ancient language was a wonder.

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Exhausted by the time the closing bell began, I decided that the only rational thing to do would be to take a long walk and find something to eat.

As I crossed a bridge over a busy highway that left the Bosque de Chapultepec, I marveled at the traffic that spread out before me.

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Reader, in person, this was one of the most fantastic images. I should have made a recording. Cars wove around each other, horns honked, nobody crashed, they sped and they were slow, and I began to stare at people who were walking down the center of the fast paced road. I didn’t notice them at first, but once I zoned in on them, I couldn’t take my eyes off. These daring souls were busy trying to sell soda and chocolates and snacks and toys to the passersby in their rapidly moving vehicles. It was so brave! And it was so dangerous! And I thought it was fantastic. Can you imagine the joy it would be to open your window and be handed a bottle of Fanta when you’re in the middle of slowly moving traffic? Or to get a satisfying end to a chocolate craving? It is just the most absurdly wonderful concept in the world.

I would have stayed for hours, I think, but it had begun to drizzle. I sighed sadly, I had been hoping that my discovery of a rainy August in Mexico City had been wrong. Apparently I had arrived at the dawn of Mexico’s wet season. When I booked tickets, I was still completely wrong and thought that this city was located in a vast desert. I never thought that it could be chilly or wet or anything less than scorching. This is another stupid discovery of mine that goes to show how ethnocentric we can be even with the best of intentions.

I was hungry and feeling daring, so I slipped inside of the first restaurant I came across. It was, unexpectedly, an Italian place that looked like it had been transported straight from Rome. Seriously, I sighed in such contentment as a waiter clad in traditional waiter garb (starched white shirt, black pants, bow tie, black apron) escorted me to a tablecloth covered table. I looked at the menu in alarm, wondering if it was going to cost me a million pesos, but I was instantly relieved. The prices were reasonable and really not all that different from Olive Garden.

The rain picked up considerably and the waiter opened the curtains for me so that I could watch the people scurrying out of the path of the watery assault. This was a good time. Service was slow and leisurely and completely proper. I felt like I was in Europe quite completely. I scolded myself for saying this again. I needed to stop comparing everything to Paris. It’s just not healthy. Nothing but Paris can be Paris, after all. Mexico City was glorious because of what it is, so I need to appreciate it for that.

I had a spicy tomato dish that was literally the hottest thing I’ve ever eaten. I won’t say that I loved it, but I enjoyed the spice. The older I get, the weirder my culinary palate becomes. I crave broccoli and grapefruit and bitter flavors that I never used to love. And now, I crave a bit of spice. It makes me feel better. It sweats out the sick in me, I think. That might be a real thing, right? This dish was filled with dried chilis. There were far too many, but I was delighted at the flavor they leant to my dinner. When I got back home half a month later, I bought a big bag of them at the Mexican grocery store in town. It’ll take me a good decade to get through them all.

I sat there for quite some time loving life. I had a dessert and a few cervezas and I delighted when the waiter did that thing where they sweep the table for crumbs. It’s so charming. The rain was not letting up, so I shrugged and dashed off into the dark night. A Metro stop wasn’t far, so I scuttled down into the bowels of Mexico City fairly well soaked to the core. I didn’t mind at all. I was thriving in that wonderful town. I couldn’t wait for the next day to come.

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