MEXICO CITY: I Love My Mummies

I am fully convinced that I was a nun or a monk in a past life. The cloistered life has always called to me, and one of these days, as you surely know from my constant blathering, I will go on a retreat to a monastery and delight in the solemn peace. I think it sounds wonderful. The days are spent in silence, working the gardens or building caskets or cooking. You eat simple and hearty meals, you don’t have to chat, you don’t have to do anything ridiculously demanding like in the external world. This kind of life suits me completely, but I’ll never be a monk. I’m too connected to the world outside and the wonders it holds, and I’m not religious, which is probably the biggest barrier.

Still, the idea thrills me. I have a book that I bought years ago of all the old monasteries and nunneries in Europe that allow guests to stay for a low price. One of these summers, I want to stay at a handful of monasteries for a month or two. It would do me a world of good, I believe. Can you imagine the delights of a summer on the Riviera staying with monks? Would be a dream.

My plans for the day were to visit an old monastery in San Angel that I found on Atlas Obscura. (Y’all know Atlas Obscura, right? It is one of my favorite travel resources, like TripAdvisor but for experiences more off the beaten path.) When scrolling it one night, I found this location that houses the naturally preserved mummies of well-to-do community members of the past. You know how I’m a ho for a good mummy, right? There was no way I was going to miss this chance, but I had a few errands to finish up first.

I hurried out into the drizzle to fetch my outfits from the laundry. I inhaled the delicious scent of clean clothes, which should honestly be a cologne by Chanel, and luxuriated in the lack of wrinkles. I hate ironing, so I bought a steamer to use at home, but I didn’t bring that along with me. It was so nice not to have to smooth my shirts out with a hair dryer, water, and hope. I don’t know why I ever bother doing my own laundry. It’s a luxury that is a necessity in my life. And when you’re in a place like this, it’s affordable. Money well spent, I say.

With a fresh set of ensembles, I was truly ready for the day ahead. I grabbed a latte from the tiny coffee shop beside my apartment’s door and headed down to the train. This was a significant delay, but one that I really enjoyed for the cultural observations it allowed me. Nobody was in the ticket booth, so a lengthy line was building up in the subterranean room of impatient commuters. Time stretched on for what felt like days; some of the more restless souls gave up completely and scurried under or over the barricades. The guard on duty just shrugged. In Paris, there will occasionally be people checking tickets, and once in a while you have to use your ticket to both enter and exit the Métro. This never happened in Mexico, so I was about to join them for an illegal journey, but just as I was working up my nerve, an employee nonchalantly settled back in her booth. Soon we were all buying tickets and boarding the train.

I was rather delighted by the spot where I popped up in San Angel. I had worried that it would be boring like Condesa, but it was nowhere near the same. It was clean and orderly like that deadly dull zone, but blissfully it still had soul and culture. I sighed dreamily at the buildings as I made my way through the soggy streets.

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Massive memorial to something I admired on the way to the monastery. 

The monastery wasn’t challenging to find, and I was soon passing my umbrella to a very kindly woman who didn’t charge me an entrance fee. I still am not sure if I was supposed to pay somewhere else or if there was some special circumstance occurring that day. The things that I was about to see in the museum would have been worth a hefty admission, reader. The Museo de el Carmen is a must if you visit Mexico City.

The layout isn’t the most obvious, which is always true when museums are housed in places that aren’t intended to be museums. (By the way, did you know that the current museum in Cairo for Egyptian antiquities is the first museum ever built to be a museum? Isn’t that elegant? Now museums are built all the time for specific purposes, but in centuries past, they were housed in elegant mansions and palaces. Lovely.) You wander through a variety of hallways that lead to different parts of the building with no apparent order (Oh my god I’m getting the weirdest deja vu right now. Have I written this before?)

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After looking at a few sparse rooms that contained heavily ornamented paintings and wooden sculptures, I got into the heart and spirit of the complex. I was rapturously happy about a cloister that popped up before going deeper into the rooms. You know how much I love a good cloister, right? I am a ho for a good cloister! I’m a ho for a lot of good things, I suppose.

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Hardly anything fills me with greater joy than the cloister in New York City in the Cloisters museum. That is the most serene spot in all the city, and since seeing it, I have decided that when I eventually build my villa in Luxor, it will be designed around a gorgeous cloister. Rooms will surround a sumptuous garden and there will be a crocodile in the pond. That’s really all I want. I think I’ll name the crocodile Chomper. The cloister at the Museo de el Carmen was perfection with bright white archways surrounding a tiled fountain. You could lean against the plaster wall and sigh contentedly, pondering the beauty of life as the rain fell down, splashing gently in the slowly bubbling fountain.

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I finally tore myself away from this serenity and went inside to see what I was here truly to see: MUMMIES. My memories are fading now because this feels like a lifetime ago, but if my vague recollections are accurate, this church and monastery had been deconsecrated many years ago. After some kind of violence or protest…sorry about my failing memory, I’m old…looters started to search through the old church and unearthed the crypt. Inside the crypt, they found a number of wonderfully preserved bodies. They were terrified, of course, but somehow…and I really need to research this…the community raised funds together for the restoration of the building. Now it’s a private museum and the mummies are the star attraction.

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The inner rooms of the monastery are endlessly beautiful and every surface seems to be tiled, but this pales in comparison to the glories of the crypt below. Literally every surface from floor to ceiling was covered in richly painted tiles. Monstrously large sarcophagi that were — you guessed it! — covered in tile and stood in niches and I began to reconsider my funeral plans. A gorgeous talavera (sp?) sarcophagus might be right up my alley! Paintings of Jesus and other religious scenes hung over the tiles, and then finally it was time to come face to face with the dead.

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The tiles on the floor are very fragile, so a narrow walkway of wood was laid on top of them. I’m not sure if this helped much, but the clicking of your heels on the wood was wonderfully atmospheric ad eery. There was not a soul down in the crypt but me, so when I entered the room that housed the dozen mummies, I was gobsmacked and I darted delightedly around the room looking at the bodies.

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These people were never intended to be mummified, but something about volcanic rock in the soil they were interred in worked to keep them in a fine state of preservation. They were still very skeletal, hardly anything like the wonderful Egyptian mummies that look like they could wake up at any second screaming for body lotion, but they were fabulous in their own way. I was particularly struck by their hands. You could see the sinewy tissue and the muscles and the dried up skin and the intricate structure of the finger bones. It was fabulous. And the hair was still lushly braided on one of the mummies, and I thought it was heartbreakingly lovely and I am somewhat haunted by my memories of these divine dead bodies in the gorgeous crypt. It had such a presence.

Okay I finally did some research. So basically everything I mentioned before was a simplified version of the actual events. After the revolutionary looters found the bodies, they became something of a local legend and were beloved by the community. People in Mexico have a very different relationship with death than what I grew up accustomed to. It’s much healthier, I think. They don’t fear death, though it brings them profound sadness, they acknowledge it as a part of life that we all must go through, and they honor and remember their dead. Here in America, when somebody in the family dies, we stuff them full of chemicals and plastic, put on our nicest clothes, sniffle awhile in church, and then put the body in the ground where it lays forever, largely forgotten.

Oh, have you all seen Coco, yet? No I’m not talking about the Broadway musical about Coco Chanel starring Katherine Hepburn that I hate never getting to see. I’m talking about the latest film from Pixar and Disney that is honestly a masterpiece. Let’s watch the trailer, shall we?

That movie was perfection.

So, the dead are respected tremendously in Mexican culture, and when a local priest suggested that the mummies be buried again, the people in town were all like,  “No thanks, they’re citizens and all that and we love and respect them.” So they just put them into some lovely glass fronted caskets and left them on display. I loved everything about the story. How wonderful it was and how gorgeous and how I wish I could visit it right now. Facing death makes it so much less troubling.

I was all alone in the crypt, and the atmosphere was absolutely intoxicating. There are certain spaces that you find yourself in where you feel the need to write a story. I feel like there should be a movie about these mummies — and not about the mummies coming to life because I no longer trust Hollywood after the latest Tom Cruise disaster — but a story about their discovery and their unique place in the community. I think it would be wonderful. The idea gives me thrills of pleasure. I have a dozen ideas of how to do this picture. Was Sylvia Browne right all those years ago when she told me to move to Hollywood and become a producer? It didn’t seem right when she told me in 2009, but now I can see it happening. Weird that. But I love these mummies and I would love to share their history. Maybe I’ll write a book that takes place there. It fits the mood of the series I’ve been writing for a couple years about the immortal Desmarais siblings. But now I’m rambling.

I have no idea how long I was in the room looking at the mummies. Some were absolutely horrible looking, their faces turned into grimaces as they dried out. Yet others looked completely at their leisure. I could have stayed for hours, and during my stay, I went down to the crypt three times. I couldn’t get enough. I love mummies, but there was plenty more to see even though I wasn’t aware of how wonderful and large the collection was at the Museo de el Carmen.

The rain had stopped so I hurried out into the gardens and began sighing in delight. It was to my taste exactly. I love when things look like they’re falling apart in a sumptuous way. You know what I mean? Like a mansion that has been taken over by nature and there’s a vine going through a shattered window. That’s a terrible description, sorry. I love spaces that look decadent and barely maintained. This is not to say that I like things to look like shit. Just look at a picture and you might understand.

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It was gorgeous. It was everything that I wanted to wake up to in the morning and slowly wander through with a cup of coffee…or tequila. I delighted in the cracked walkways and the overgrown plants and the tall trees and the blooming flowers and the tile encrusted benches. It was such perfection and with the cloisters, I couldn’t think of a more beautiful place to dedicate ones life to. If I could have lived in this monastery, there is no way that I would not. I would have become a monk in a heartbeat. When I go back this summer — did I mention I’m spending TWO MONTHS in Mexico City? — I will have to wander through this perfect place a dozen times.

But it was time to finish my wandering, and I just couldn’t believe how much there was to this seemingly itty bitty museum. Religious art covered every surface surrounded in beautiful golden frames. The rooms that the monks used to live in have all been converted into galleries and I marveled at the doorways. That doesn’t sound like anything, but the doors were all like exactly six foot tall and so every time I entered the room, I had to duck. Isn’t it wild how much taller we have become in a couple centuries?

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A monk unperturbed by the ax in his skull.

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Me getting up for work.

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Me ignoring my responsibilities and wondering why my to-do list is endless.

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I am OBSESSED with how lions were painted by people who have no idea what actual lions look like.

The images that captivated me the most weren’t the gorgeous oil paintings of Jesus and angels, but the simple sketches that the monks did on the walls of their rooms. These, I felt, were the loveliest because they were the most honest and real. I love ornate religious art, but I loved this.

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And then there was something I loved even more: EMBROIDERED FLORAL CLOTHING.

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I am a ho for a good floral, reader, I just adore being covered in flowers. I have so many floral prints that I could probably wear a new shirt every day for a month. Being swathed in hibiscus blossoms and roses and surrealist depictions of sunflowers is what makes me my happiest. And so when I found myself in a room filled with beautiful linen dresses and shirts covered in colorful flowers and with mariachi music emanating over the speakers, I could not have been happier. I swooned over every ensemble. I don’t have any desire to wear a dress, but I would certainly wear a shirt and pants and a cape covered in flowers. That would suit me right down to the ground.

I didn’t bring enough florals with me to Mexico. Reader, I didn’t bring a single one. That was foolish of me, but I wasn’t sure what the fashion vibe was going to be. Knowing as I do now, I am going to stock up on more florals before I leave in 126 days for my next visit to Mexico! Or! I could buy them down there, some beautifully embroidered tunics with perfect marigolds embroidered in a festoon of glorious color! God how I wish I were rich.

Leaving this beautiful chamber, I went through a series of rooms filled with golden frames and oil paintings.

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And then into a private chapel and the public chapel and then I was in the most peculiar place I had yet been in Mexico. All around me were plexiglass cases filled with vignettes of famous stories made out of Legos. It was peculiar.

Sleepy Hollow and Dracula and Aladdin and even a vignette of the Old West were assembled out of Legos. I have no idea why such a display was in a museum of predominately religious art, but the intricate designs were fascinating. I can’t say that I studied them at length with the eye of an art historian or anything, but I did stare at the Dracula displays for several many minutes. The labor of the construction was impressive, and it was great to see that somebody had invested so much time into turning plastic blocks into the immortal Dracula.

I hadn’t eaten, and I had seen everything in the museum, so I endeavored to go out and find a good tlacoyo. This was a harder challenge than I had hoped but I soon forgot all about my mission to eat. I found myself in such a wonderful spot of San Angel that dripped with scholarly culture. A massive park with a huge fountain and a large memorial soared up over me. I never figured out what it was for. Across the street was an avenue of tent covered shops selling used books. I eagerly thumbed through some of these, hoping to find something to add to my Egyptological library back home, but the search was fruitless. But the spot was so lovely that I didn’t mind. I loved how cultural Mexico City was. This is a city for academics and culture in ways that I never anticipated.

And then something even more cultural occurred. As I left the book fair, I saw the Alliance Française and hurried inside after seeing a sign for a bakery run by a French pastry chef. I was excited to chat with my brethren in a language that I fully understood. Unluckily, the bakery was closed for the day, and the woman behind the front desk seemed emotionally crushed for me. I appreciated that .

Carrying on, I found a bookstore with what appeared to be a very popular cafe on the second level. After scanning the menu, I made my way in.

The place was packed to bursting, but the line moved quickly, and I was soon endeavoring to order. I chose a torta stuffed with grilled cheese and eggs. If you’re unfamiliar with tortas, these are basically stuffed sandwiches using the most scrumptious bread. You can get them filled with absolutely anything, but this was the first time I could find a vegetarian option. I was ecstatic. The food was quickly prepared and I finally found a seat next to the kitchen, which I loved because you could watch the line cook put everything together.

There’s something deeply intoxicating about the sizzle of grilled cheese as it cooks. The sandwich was divine and I was so happy. It warmed me from the inside out, and then it was time to head back.

Happily ensconced back in my apartment, I watched the final hours of the day tick by. Midnight was a couple hours off, and I had to dart out to buy myself a treat. When the day changed, it would be my birthday, and I wanted something special to treat myself to.

I wandered down to the Zocalo and took the lengthiest route. All of the shops were shuttered, and each had a metal grill that was pulled down over the entryway. Every single one of these was completely covered in sumptuous graffiti. I was gobsmacked at the quality of the art. Beautiful skulls, Aztec symbols, a lot of Frida Kahlo, flowers, and animals burst forth with wonderful abundance. I loved it, México City was a living museum.

I slowly walked past the Cathedral Metropolitan and drank up the scenery awash in yellow light. Back on the Calle Simon Bólivar, I stopped for churros at a shop about a block from my apartment. They were freshly fried and burning hot. I got some dipping chocolate sauce, too, and I couldn’t wait to devour them.

Back in the apartment, I sat in the courtyard with my churros, a bottle of tequila, and a bag of cat treats. Patrón and Little Chiffon were laying beside me and then the church bell tolled midnight. I took a shot of that deliciously cheap tequila and petted the kittens and then all of a sudden I was 28.

RuPaul said in his podcast that every seven years begins a new cycle and that life will get better and better every seven years. I don’t know if that was true, but then, in the midnight with the stars glittering, with beautiful kittens, with wonderful tequila, with fresh churros, and with the noise and music of the city echoing all around the courtyard, I wasn’t entirely sure if life could ever be better.

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