MEXICO CITY: Pyramids! Grasshoppers! What?

As I say quite frequently, I’m a ho for a good pyramid. All my life long I’ve been captivated by the structures. Of course my overriding passion is for those in Egypt, and whilst the Great Pyramid of Giza wasn’t quite everything I dreamed it to be, it was still marvelous to be at that site. It would have been so much nicer if the spot wasn’t filled with the most aggressive touts I have ever experienced, but this is not a time to chat about my misadventures in Cairo. Today we’re talking about a different set of pyramids altogether.

I’m ashamedly poorly versed in the history of Mexico. I know that the pyramids of Teotihuacán exist. I know what they look like. I know some very basic information since the Pyramid of the Sun is referred to in every book about pyramids. But I had no interest in it for years and years. Today was the day for my perspectives to change! I need to stop thinking that everything is better because it’s in faraway Africa. I need to appreciate what is here on my own continent.

I was running late, as I always am, and while I don’t usually regret this on vacations, it did hinder me somewhat today, but hardly horribly. I grabbed a bit of cheese and hurried out the door. Patròn meowed at me, so I hurried back into the apartment and got him some well-deserved treats. He appreciated them tremendously and he deserved them just for being so damned adorable. Then I was truly on my way.

To get out to the pyramids, I needed to take a bus and to get to the bus, I needed to get to a bus station. This was easier than I dreamed. You just sit on the Metro for a spell and get off at the last stop. I enjoyed this as I always do. The Metro in Mexico City blissfully goes aboveground as often as it goes underground and there are endless things to look at. I probably could have ridden the Metro all day and been completely satisfied. On my next trip, I just might.

The bus station was a wonder of confusion. There were dozens of places to get tickets and hundreds of people going off in a million directions. I reread the instructions I had written myself and eventually found the proper dealer for a ticket out to the pyramids. It was a simple transaction and I managed it completely in Spanish, so I was immensely proud of myself in that moment.

My pride quickly dissipated when I couldn’t figure out where to go next. I wasn’t entirely sure what was going on with the ticket. There were loads of numbers and letters. A kindly gentleman helped me out, though, and I was soon in line to board the bus.

It was a gorgeous afternoon, and the seat was unexpectedly comfortable. It was beside a large window with a wonderful view of the city as we drove out of it. Mexico City traffic is insane. It’s a grand delirium. Vehicles of every shape, color, and age go in a million different directions to a billion different destinations. Horns honk, people shout, brakes are slammed. It’s delightful.

As we neared the outskirts of the city, we stopped for something I’ve never before done abroad. A police officer boarded the bus and filmed us all with a video camera. She made sure to point it at each of us after instructing us to remove hats and sunglasses. I wonder how this footage is used?

Then we were out of town and I learned that I was on a second class bus and that second class is the only class I want to travel when I’m in Mexico. Every thirty minutes or so, the driver would pull over on the side of the road and let people on. I’m not sure if these were prearranged encounters or spontaneous. These folks were not passengers, though, they were trying to peddle wares and experiences. The first man that got on sold ice cream. Everybody bought some. I had a guava flavored thing on a stick and it was delicious.

Shortly after, he got off the bus and stood on the side of the road. I assume he waited for another one to pass by and continue doing business. Shortly thereafter, a young man with a guitar boarded and began to serenade is. It was beautiful. (So was he.) I tipped him. Then he brought out a clay flute and began to play traditional folk songs. It was also beautiful. Somebody else called out a song and after accepting a tip, he played “Despacito” on the flute. I cackled merrily!

When I wasn’t being utterly entertained, I was loving the scenery out the window. Please refer to this horrible image I took out the window of the speeding bus:

IMG_0960

Mexico is stunning, reader. I never knew what a beautiful country it is and that makes me feel so dumb. But we needn’t live in regret, I suppose. The village of Ecatepec came into view, and it stretched high up into a hill. I was deliriously in love by the sight of it. The houses and buildings were all done in the most riotously beautiful colors. Instead of drab greys and whites, they were salmon and pink and bright blue. I have long been a fan of less saturated objects, but here it felt right, and I adored it. It recalled the beautiful villages in the south of France that I loved wandering through a few years back.

What I drooled over even more was the packed cemetery that we sped by. I wished we had stopped so I could wander through and examine every single grave. This graveyard, like so many things in Mexico, reminded me of France. I worship the elaborate and intricate cities of the dead in Europe, but in smaller towns and poorer places, they have equally beautiful burial grounds. Instead of mausoleums, there are wrought iron fences that surround the plot and wonderfully rusted iron crosses that tell the name of the buried. I only caught a moment’s study on my way past, and I long to go back. On the next trip. Always on the next trip.

I studied the map on my phone and saw that we were nearing Teotihuacán. Excitement and trepidation washed over me. Would I be disappointed? Would I be enthralled? Would I be lost forever? What would I eat? Would I fall off one of the pyramids? I shrugged and got off the bus.

The pyramid was nowhere to be seen, so I followed a path to a small building where a sleepy old man sold tickets. I was the first, and seemingly only person there, so I was deeply confused about the proper procedure, but I followed my gut and found the main trail. In the distance, finally, soared the massive Pyramid of the Sun. It looked more like a mountain than a pyramid, and I must confess, I was tremendously impressed. It was a behemoth. The pyramids in Giza failed to awe me in the same way.

IMG_0961

I recall that moment with vivid detail. I was in the front seat of a car being driven to Giza by an ancient man I’m convinced was half deranged. Horns shrieked and cars moved deftly into open spaces. Trucks full of eggs whizzed by. A random donkey would appear on the side of the road hooked to a cart. Buildings that looked ready to tumble to the ground sprouted left and right, all nearly the same color with rebar reaching for the sky. And then, on the horizon, rising in a ghostly silhouette though the Cairine smog, stood the pyramids. My heart leapt to my throat and I sat enthralled watching them grow larger and larger. Wonderful moment. And then standing on a rooftop with a reincarnated Atlantean priestess watching the sun sink behind them and the Sphinx slowly fading to black…well it was a wonderful adventure. The pyramids weren’t that great the next day after I got haggled to death.

Anyway, the Pyramid of the Sun affected me in a completely different way. It filled me with the awe I thought I would have in Egypt. It was absolutely huge and there was still a good mile to walk to get to it. I could see minuscule figures making their way up the steps of the structure. I simply could not wait to join them.

To get there, you take a long walk over some very bumpy paths. Halfhearted vendors try to sell you ocarinas or ceramic skulls or these infuriating whistles in the shape of a jaguar head. You blow into the back and the handmade device emits a howl that sounds alarmingly like that of a very large and very angry cat. I was amused by this the first time, and like all annoying things, almost every child in the archaeological site had one. In a matter of minutes, I was absolutely exhausted of the sound. I wouldn’t let it kill my spirit, though.

The path soon gave way to what appeared to be a manmade ravine. On either side were stone walls that housed temples and art. Most of this was long gone, lost to history, but images and descriptions tried to explain what it once was like. It would have been a sensation to see this place as it was when the Spaniards arrived. How they must have marveled. I was marveling at the ruins.

Finally this walkway opened up and the Pyramid of the Sun soared fantastically up to the heavens. The angle of the slope was much sharper than the ones in Egypt, and I couldn’t even begin to comprehend how many stones composed the structure because…you know…math. Never was my favorite subject. It was a triumph of humankind’s architectural achievements. It was extraordinary. It was a behemoth.

IMG_1011

Giddily, I stood at the side of the pyramid, staring up in fascination, and then began to climb. This was something that I have long dreamed of doing. In Egypt — and sorry for talking about that subject so much — you might get shot if you try a stunt like this. The pyramids in Mexico were built to be climbed, though. Priests would sacrifice victims on top of the structure and then fling the bodies down the side, letting them bounce grotesquely to the bottom. Bloody culture, but fabulously interesting.

The beginning was simple enough, just a staircase, but after the first major tiered level, the steps became increasingly steep and people were huffing and puffing. I am blessed to be in fairly good shape for doing absolutely nothing to maintain my fitness, so I wasn’t too poor off, but I must admit that after two-thirds of the climb, my beautiful thighs were aching. I mused about how attractive I might be if I climbed a pyramid every day. I think that would be a tremendously amusing fitness regimen. But how many people have access to a pyramid in reality? Very few I suppose.

IMG_0994

To soothe my muscles, I wandered around the tier and looked out on the landscape that spread out around me. It was hard to believe that only a couple hours from where I stood was one of the busiest and densely populated cities in the world. Here there was nothing but blue sky, green fields, and mountains rising up in the distance. To my right, like a small mountain, was the Pyramid of the Moon, which I think is the most beautiful of the pyramids at Teothuicán.

vista.jpg

The final stage was the most challenging part of the climb. The stairs were increasingly steep and a rope was all that existed for support. Most people were climbing on all fours, which was amusing to watch, but I found it was a bit unreasonable. I suppose that’s because I’m a bit taller than most of the tourists. I never feel particularly tall, but here in Mexico I was often one of the tallest in the train, bus, street, or room. Fabulous view at all times.

IMG_1008

After waiting for the people ahead of me to make the final steps of the ascent, I found myself atop the site’s largest pyramid. And reader, I must admit to you, I found myself breathtaken.

IMG_1072

The view wasn’t tremendously different, but the ambiance had changed altogether. This was the site of so much history. I thought about the sacrificial victims, of the priests with their obsidian blades, of the thousands of people that would throng around the base of the pyramid during religious ceremonies, of the thriving city that used to exist all around this spot. Now it was nothing but tourists and rock, but oh how marvelous it was.

There was a group on a guided tour at the summit, so I sat down conveniently close to listen to the guide’s description of the pyramid. Nothing really new learned aside from a new grisly fact. The surface of the pyramid is not at all smooth. There are large stones that jut out. You can’t see these from a distance, but when climbing the pyramid, I was frequently curious about their purpose. The builders of the pyramid were capable of making smooth edges, so these outcroppings must have had a purpose. Turns out they did. When the priests were finished sacrificing their offerings, attendants would toss the bodies off the side. I knew this, but I didn’t know that the pyramid was designed to make this gruesome spectacle even more awful. The body would hit these stones and bounce off, like a nightmarish version of Plinko. Sometimes the bodies would be caught on a stone and then rot away, leaving nothing but a skeleton clinging to the side of he structure as a warning to others and as a symbol of the power of the gods. It was quite gruesome.

But the pyramid was beautiful. Sitting there, a cloud of butterflies erupted from somewhere and flew all around me before flitting away on the breeze. I thought that was so silly and delightful. The pictures I tried to capture turned out like complete garbage, so the moment must live on forever in memory alone. Sad that, but it was beautiful. It was particularly beautiful because it was also ridiculous. A group of young people were sitting on the side of the pyramid near me with one of those little Bluetooth speakers. “Despacito” erupted from the machine, as the song did everywhere in Mexico City that summer. It was surreal to be sitting on a pyramid in southern Mexico listening to Daddy Yankee and Justin Bieber crooning whilst butterflies festooned around me at the site of intense and bloody religious sacrifice. I felt very lucky to be there in that moment. It was certainly not a normal day by any means.

An old feeling came over me in that moment, atop the Pyramid of the Sun. It was my constant foe, overwhelming hunger. It’s a true miracle for the ages that I don’t weigh four hundred pounds. By all stretches of the imagination, it doesn’t make a lick of sense. The number of calories I consume should make me much more than a skinny fat man (A REAL THING, READER!) hiding in sweaters one size too large. But until my metabolism completely abandons me, I will take advantage of it.

I remembered that there was an interesting restaurant near the archaeological complex inside of a cave. I had researched it intensively the year before and had found nothing but excellent reviews, so I endeavored to go there once the gates to the pyramids closed at five. I was a bit wary of this, I must admit. I was not entirely sure how to return to Mexico City and I didn’t really want to be lost a few hours away from my kittens in the courtyard. But I read the back of my return ticket a dozen times and determined that there was adequate time to solve a crisis should it come up, so I descended the pyramid satisfied that there was a good meal coming my way.

IMG_1044

There were still a number of sites to see here before I left. I shall spare you my elaborate descriptions. But the Pyramid of the Moon was gorgeous, tremendously much more beautiful than the larger one devoted to the sun. You weren’t able to go all the way to the summit, but there were fabulous selfie locations, so that was fine. The Palace of Quetzalpapalotl was particularly lovely. This was a complex that was decorated with stunning wall paintings. I was delighted by one that showed jaguars.

IMG_1057

The last stop that I needed to visit was the museum, but by the time I reached this, it was closed. I suppose if I had left my apartment a moment or two earlier I would have had time to dart through, but I would have to let this wait until my next visit. (Thankfully that next visit might be sooner than I anticipated. As you might have read in another post, Jessica and I are planning to visit Mexico City this summer. I’m hoping to go back for at least twice the time I stayed the last time. I don’t think I could ever tire of that wonderful place. But back to the narrative.)

I used the map on my iPhone to find La Gruta, and reader, I was utterly charmed at the beginning. It literally is a cave! I knew that it was, but seeing it in person was gasp-worthy.

IMG_1080

A staircase descended deep into the earth and the floor was covered in elegantly clad tables with candles flickering in the subterranean gloom. I couldn’t wait to get started. A kindly attendant took down my information, and a short spell later, I was making my way to my table. It was delightful, reader. I love caves, always have, but never did I ever think I’d go spelunking to dinner!

It was rather early in the dinner service, so things took a bit longer than I otherwise would have anticipated, but this didn’t bother me in the slightest. I was in the most wonderful location with so many deliriously wonderful things to look at. I didn’t know if it was possible to tire of the surroundings. Waiters dashed between the tables lighting candles that caused shadows to flicker all around. Elegant visitors and poorly clad tourists assembled together and created a cacophony of language. I heard Spanish and accented English and French and Arabic and German and I was having a linguistic high. Few things thrill me with delight more than do languages. They are one of my very first loves.

IMG_1071

My waiter came round, and he was utterly charming and handsome so that suited me. I ordered a tamarind margarita. The idea of such a combination was preposterous. I was not entirely sure how such a thing would taste — tamarind and tequila are both very strong flavors — so I was admittedly wary of the drink. It was hideous, a deep brown color, and the rim was coated in an ugly sugar. I took a sip with trepidation, but it was fabulous! The texture was strange, I’ll admit that much. Oddly slick. But the taste was utterly delightful. I was beyond pleased and happily sipped the contents down to the ice.

Dinner was another matter entirely. I asked the waiter if there were vegetarian items. He enthusiastically rambled a bunch of things off, so I got whatever he recommended. I wasn’t sure if this was a great idea, because the sweet lord above only knows how much it was going to cost me, but it was a vacation and I had a credit card if things went awry.

Things quickly went awry, but not financially. No, I could afford the meal handily in the end. It was the content of my meal that was shocking.

Soon the waiter was back, beaming, and I was starving, so I could hardly wait to begin gorging myself. He sat down a plate of sopes, a dish I have had innumerable time, but these ones were slightly different. The ever present wedge of lime was there. The crispy tortilla was there. The guacamole was generously scooped on top. But atop the guacamole…reader…atop the guacamole…I can hardly bring myself to say what it was. Let me just present you with an image:

IMG_1076

Yes. Grasshoppers. Dozens of grasshoppers. Nasty bugs spilled from the top. I was horrified, but I hid my terror until the waiter left. People all around the cave were gawking at me. I stared at the sopes. The grasshoppers’ many eyes stared back at me. I didn’t know what to do. I refuse to be gastronomically rude. Hell, the year before I had eaten a chicken that was sacrificed for me when I visited friends in a small Egyptian village. As a vegetarian, that was terribly trying, but it was nothing like this. Nothing compares to the thought of consuming a bug.

Automatically, I reached for the lime. The grasshoppers continued to glare up at me. Everybody around watched with trepidation. I squeezed the lime. I swear I heard a person gasp behind me as the tart liquid hit the crunchy fried grasshopper bodies. In horror, I stared down ate their crispy exoskeletons.

Trying not to think, I lifted the sope into the air and stared at it intensely. It stared back with equal intensity. Slowly, I brought it to my lips and took the tiniest of bites. It was literally this:

ldxzgrf

I only had tortilla and guacamole in my mouth. My fear had not been completely assuaged. So I sat there and I thought to myself and the words of my divine Joanna Lumley rang through my mind loud and clear. “Quite a lot of life is like that. Just get over it and just do it.”

And I took a bite.

It crunched.

A grasshopper leg managed to hook onto my lip in the most grotesque fashion. And reader, there were three of these monstrous concoctions for me to eat. I was deeply troubled. This was certainly not the kind of vegetarian food that I had in mind. And I don’t know if I’m particularly dense, but the definition of vegetarianism to others has long fascinated me. They say, “Well then you certainly eat fish or chicken, right?” No, the point is not to consume animal flesh that has been killed for eating. It seems so straightforward. But…I have never even once considered the consumption of insects for myself.

I must make an odd confession to you, reader. This appetizer really wasn’t that bad. The grasshoppers tasted just like salty, oily crunch. They had no real flavor, the texture was fine when you were chewing it. The only gruesome aspect is the act of putting them in your mouth. And there is something truly disconcerting about having a grasshopper leg stuck between your teeth. And it’s odd to think about grasshopper bits floating through your digestive track. In the end, I don’t know if I would recommend this dish, but it wasn’t horrifying.

The grasshopper detritus was cleared away, and soon my next dish was delivered. Once again, the definition of vegetarian was different. Here was a beautiful piece of sea bass covered in mole. I sighed inwardly and thanked the waiter. He was very handsome.

The fish was dry, but the mole had a remarkable flavor. I have been toying with pescatarianism for awhile now, so I decided there were worse things for my diet. The best part of the dish, to my surprise, was the rice. It was flavored with baby cilantro, which provided the most decadent flavor to the rice. I really can’t stand cilantro, so I’m surprised I enjoyed this so much. The flavor of the tender greens was so much milder than the assertive cilantro tang I am accustomed to.

With dinner finished and paid for, it was time to take part in a ritual that all diners are asked to engage in once they finish their meals. The waiter lights the candle on your table at some point during the meal and then you reverently carry this up a short flight of stairs that winds up to the interior of the cave. Here, you select a spot to leave your candle and add the dim flicker of your candle to the bright glow emanating from all the others. According to legend, this cave is where the original people of this region emerged from many millennia ago. They are the people who built the pyramids above the cave and first civilized ancient Mexico. Not sure how much truth is in this statement, if this were truly such a sacred site or one with historical interest, one would imagine that a fine restaurant would not be there and perhaps a museum would be instead? Either way, it didn’t matter, what mattered was how charming the moment was.

Sated intellectually and gastronomically, I made my way back to the surface and the dying light. I was not entirely sure how to get to the buses back to Mexico City, so the staff called a taxi for me. The bill for that taxi was exorbitant, but I didn’t mind. The man was kind and proud of himself for speeding through the streets so that I would make the next bus on time. I appreciated that, and I didn’t at all mind paying probably four times what I should have.

The bus station was harshly lit with too many fluorescent bulbs, but it was kind of wonderful to sit in the waiting area with a bizarre cast of characters. A security officer who was in charge of the station patted me down and then helped me understand how to get on the appropriate bus. She and I spoke in Spanglish, which is really so much easier for me. It’s no wonder that so many kids use this patois — good word, that, patois. Grandma Betty taught me that one. She said it all the time. Let’s say it together, shall we? Yes? Good. One…two…three…PATOIS! Such fun.

The bus took off in fifteen or so minutes before I left, so I sat watching a bizarre comedy show on television, laughing when it felt appropriate with the other travelers. Some were tourists, some were businesspeople, and the majority were just common people. I loved being there amongst them, studying what they wore, how they passed the time, the snacks they kept pulling out of their bags.

The ride back to Mexico City was direct. We didn’t stop anywhere to pick up roadside entertainment or snacks, nor did we stop at any other stations. We forged ahead, and outside my window the skies were a riot of colors. It was a most sumptuous sunset.

Soon the wondrous chaos of Mexico City returned and I was soon back in the Metro heading to, what felt to me, my home. It was a fabulous day. And I loved Mexico. And I immediately hurried to the corner shop to grab floss because I wasn’t dealing well with grasshopper legs in my teeth.

IMG_1748

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s