MEXICO CITY: The Donkey and the Scorpion

Jessica woke up before me, and the shock of this was so total and complete that I was immediately woke. I was suspicious and wary of what was going on, but this didn’t last long once we started talking about food. Since we were both up and dressed before noon — which is honestly bizarre — we decided to go out for a late breakfast. And by late breakfast, I mean lunch. And so we went down the street to Casa Churra. They make delicious stuffed churros, which I didn’t have any interest in until I ordered one by accident. Instead of the usual bag full of readymade churros, you get a really big individual one freshly fried and then filled with whatever you want. You could get vanilla pastry cream, strawberry jam, caramel, or chocolate. I, of course, always ordered chocolate, and had that for my breakfast dessert. You should absolutely have dessert with every meal. Even with a little snack.

The restaurant was tranquil, and the waiter was so patient with our abysmal Spanish. He seemed almost charmed by it, which charmed me in return. Jessica decided she would stuff herself with cheese quesadillas and I determined that it would be an absolute sin not to have any huevos rancheros. Divine. Absolutely delicious. Jessica and I said that we would return dozens of time, and like most of our proclamations of this sort, we absolutely had no intention of following through. We never went back for a meal. For churros, though, yes. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Today, I decided that we would go and see the basilica devoted to the Lady of Guadalupe. It was absolutely stunning, but I wasn’t entirely sure that Jessica would enjoy herself. Jessica likes a lot of the things that I do, but I had a worrying feeling that she would not appreciate following the rose-lined pathway that Juan Diego allegedly ascended centuries ago. As I’ve surely mentioned before, she feels that staircases have a jihad on her. She glares at staircases like they’re living things. I should not have fretted so much, for I think this was her favorite outing of our entire trip, which was absolutely wonderful and we had a really good time.

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We arrived much earlier than I had the last time a year ago, which thrills me because more of the churches that dotted the spot would be open for viewing. I got there very late the first time, so I was only able to see the main basilica, which was a real shame. We went into the newest, massive building first to see the main attraction, the holy shroud. Jessica was deeply unimpressed by this, which didn’t bode well for the outing. I mean, I had to stop her from openly mocking Juan Diego and his cloak. 

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Above the main altar hangs the famous cloak where roses mysteriously wove themselves into the cloth to reveal the image of Mary. The cloak fundamentally altered Mexico’s religious future and is now emblematic of the nation. The veracity of the story is reasonably doubtful, but the story itself is lovely enough that it’s worth retelling. This is the story as I understand it. There are quite a few variations, but this is the one that seems most consistent. 

Shortly after the Spaniards arrived in Mexico and claimed the land for Spain, they set to work eradicating the native religions. This was done by razing their pyramid temples to the ground and building churches on the ruined spots. It was harsh and cruel but very effective. One man in a village that now rests well within the boundaries of the modern Mexican capital was on his way to town to confer with a healer for his very ill uncle when he saw an apparition. He wasn’t entirely sure what to make of this, but he approached the glittering woman who had appeared. She introduced herself as the mother of Jesus and told Juan Diego that she needed a church built for her where she was standing. If this were to happen she would be very satisfied and his uncle would survive his illness. Juan thought this sounded like a decent deal, so he hurried off to see the local priest and tell him what happened.

The priest was like, “Mk, yeah right, Juan. You saw a ghost lady wanting a church? Sure you did. Why don’t you go home and lie down? 

Juan was like, “No really. She was real…the glittery floating ghost lady, and she was really adamant about that church.”

“Right…” the priest replied, “Well, I’ll see you Sunday?”

Juan Diego left feeling rather dejected, and I like to imagine them talking in this modern verbiage, rather than in the words they actually exchanged. 

A while later, Juan was passing by the hill again and he was real irked that nobody believed in the apparition that had manifested right before his very eyes. He shouted to the heavens for proof that what he had witnessed was real and that he wasn’t the town lunatic. 

The lady appeared again with her benevolent smile, and her shimmering halo that surrounded her divine form. “Yo, Juan,” she said, “where my church at?”

“Nobody believes me, Lady,” he whined, “and now my uncle is gonna croak and I’m going to get locked up in a psych ward.”

“Chill, Juan, my bro,” she said, “calm down. I’ll give you all the proof you need.”

This sparked Juan’s interest mightily. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah,” she replied. “Now, go up the hill, all the way to the top, and collect all the rose blossoms that you can fit into your cloak. Take these to the church and everybody will believe you and you’ll be a legend.”

“Sure, right,” Juan said dubiously, tired of looking like the village idiot. It was December and there was no way in hell that the hilltop would be blossoming with any kind of flower let alone a delicate rose. But it was weird to have this ghost woman repeatedly haranguing him for a church, so Juan made his way up the hill, doubting his sanity with every step. 

When he made it to the very top, well, Juan about lost his damn mind. All around him were rosebushes filled with perfect roses. “LITTY!” He cried, and began plucking as many roses as he could, the thorny stems seeming to be nonexistent, nothing but vibrant and lush roses. He put them all in his cloak and with a cackle he scampered back down the hill and made his way to the priest.

“Hey, Juan, those spooks leaving you be?” the priest chuckled at his own joke before catching himself. Juan was very serious.

“I come bearing a message from the shiny virgin,” Juan proudly proclaimed. “The Lady sent you roses.”

“Flowers,” the priest exclaimed, “for me???”

“Well,” Juan mused, “I guess. They’re really to prove to you that I’m not crazy.”

“Mk,” the priest replied dubiously.

Juan smiled eagerly and then threw open the cloak that he had held closed close to his bosom. Expecting a shower of rose petals, he was flummoxed when there was nothing at all cascading from his opened cloak. The priest looked utterly gobsmacked, though, and Juan was sure he was about to be locked up in a hospital, so slowly and cautiously, he turned the cloak around to face him and he found himself equally gobsmacked. 

There, where before had been a worn cloak was an intricate rendering of the Lady that Juan Diego had seen several times. Juan looked closely at the image and found that the riotous colors of the roses had imprinted themselves on the fibers of the cloak, somehow transforming his peasant garb into one of the most recognizable religious symbols in all the world. 

Nobody could explain how Juan, a poor peasant, could have created something so wonderful and so beautiful for no reason other than to build a church for a woman that nobody had seen. He didn’t seem insane and there was no obvious motive for his actions, and so it was accepted that Juan had experienced a true heavenly apparition and that the words of the Virgin must be heeded. And so a church was built where he first saw the lady and today the site is one of the largest places of pilgrimage in all of Christendom. 

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Today, the spot is something akin to a religious theme park and I absolutely love it. This is a remarkable place that is absolutely worth spending a few hours or even a whole day, whether you are a believer or not there is something that you will find fascinating. Jessica and I are not religious in the slightest, but we both had an absolutely sensational time. 

We started in the new basilica, where Jessica stared dubiously up at the cloak as we stood on a moving walkway right beneath the sacred relic. She wasn’t too convinced by my rendition of Juan Diego’s story, but I managed to keep her from scoffing too hard. I was thrilled by a display in the very back of the chapel that had what appeared to be a melted crucifix. 

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Before the current basilica had been constructed, its predecessor had been attacked by a domestic terrorist. A deranged man, nearly a century ago, decided he needed to construct a bomb and blow the place up for some unknown reason. In a bouquet of flowers, he hid dynamite, and then let the thing blow. Miraculously, the brunt of the explosion was absorbed by a giant metal crucifix which immediately warped and twisted and fell in a strange shape, protecting the shroud from any damage. Who knows want kind of supernatural event occurred, if any, but the bomb did exist and the cloak is fine and all there is now is a credible and very impressively warped cross. I had a good time looking at the disfigured crucifix before heading back out into the bright pavilion. 

We didn’t really have a plan of action, so we wandered from site to site to site, marveling at the art, taking delight in some of the absurdities, salivating at the scent of something cooking that smelled marvelous in the nearby market, and having an all-around uproarious good time. We wandered through church after church, learning about the story of the apparition, of the Lady of Guadalupe, of the miracles people had claimed, of Juan Diego, of the letters and relics left behind to be blessed by nearness to the spot. It was great. 

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Before ascending up Juan Diego’s hill, we stood rather transfixed in front of a huge sculptural display that was part Disney/part Vatican/part Las Vegas. It was a massive water feature with loads of statues depicting the natives being converted to Catholicism by the arrival of the blessed lady. It was delightful. 

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Then we started to climb the tile-lined stairway and something happened that I thought would never happen, something equally terrifying and wonderful, something that shocked me into delighted squawks of horror. Reader, Jessica took a step ahead of me — and how she got ahead of me on a staircase is an absolute mystery — and when her foot lifted to the next riser, I saw something that didn’t quite blend in with the dark blue design of the tile. I didn’t quite know what I was seeing at first, because it was not a sight I am familiar with. READER: it was a SCORPION!

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I knew that Mexico had scorpions. I had been hearing about them for ages, but I never saw one. Each and every time I slipped my boots on, I shook them first to make sure that a little scorpion hadn’t lodged itself inside. I was not particularly bothered by scorpions. They’re not nearly so awful as spiders, but the idea of my foot being nestled next to a scorpion was something that didn’t really elicit any feelings of delighted expectation. But still, I wanted to see one at some point, they had to be out there somewhere, and there one was!

It was horrible, but in the most delightful way, with a shiny black body, and a raised stinger, and little pincer claws. Awful looking thing. So ugly that it’s hard to believe that they are a real thing. It didn’t appear to have any interest in stinging us, and we weren’t about to let it intentionally, so we just watched as it scuttled away back into the rosebushes. Let me tell you, that was a THRILL.

We got distracted quickly, as is our custom, when we saw a photographer printing out large glossy photos of tourists sitting on donkey mannequins with sombreros on their head. Jessica and I knew at once that we needed to have a picture taken here, atop that plastic donkey with the Virgin Mary blessing us in a background covered in plastic flowers. It was gaudy and over-the-too and it was wonderful. It harkened back to the only other time we had been together in Mexico. 

I probably wrote about Nogales on here before, but it’s vital to today’s narrative. In 1999, my family celebrated the arrival of the new millennium in Phoenix, Arizona. Before and after, we did excursions all around, so we saw the Grand Canyon and parts of the desert and the city’s but the thing that has lasted the longest in my memory is crossing the border into Mexico. It was a new world. My first real example of a life that was different than my own. I had been to Canada before, but Canada is hardly that different from the United States. 

I don’t have loads of memories of Mexico but I will share with you what I got. I remember Nogales being dusty and poor. I remember we bought a huge amount of cheese that we ended up feeding to a kindly stray dog. I remember going to a street market and bartering with an artisan for a better price on a stone dolphin that had been hand carved. It was very intimidating. I still don’t like it. I remember that we went to a cafe but couldn’t figure out what to do. I remember going to a Walmart and finding it absolutely fascinating to be in a Walmart in another country, it launched a lifelong obsession. And most vividly, I recall being draped with a poncho, a sombrero being slapped on my head, and stood on a crate next to a donkey. Jessica hopped on the burro who didn’t give a shit and then we snapped a picture that I’m obsessed with. 

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On Juan Diego’s staircase, our roles were reversed, there was still a sombrero on my head, but the donkey was fake this time. However, Jessica and I were so over-The-top excited about recreating this picture that it didn’t matter. It wasn’t very expensive to get gigantic photos printed out and mounted on a calendar for 2019. Reader, it was absolutely iconic. Take a look for yourselves and try to name a more iconic duo, I’ll wait. I love that meme. Anyway. 

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Jessica and I were beyond pleased with ourselves as we smugly carried our portraits back down the famous tiled staircases. We had seen pretty much everything on the site, so we stopped by one of the many gift shops to pick up some trinkets. I wanted to get a rosary for a friend who was going through some serious medical concerns. I sent back a care package when Jessica returned to the United States with the rosary from the basilica, a statuette of Santa Muerte, and then some tea I had a witch make me at the Mercado Sonoro. I don’t know if my gifts did much, but her brain surgery was a total success. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ 

Intoxicating aromas wafted to our nostrils from an adjoining market, so we decided we had to investigate immediately. Only a fool will turn down delicious food in a market. Nothing is better. God I want a taco right now. Don’t know why I even bothered leaving Mexico City. I’ll be right back. I need to look into teaching jobs down there for real. To our disappointment, the market was closing and the stalls were shuttering. Devastated that we couldn’t get huaraches or tlacoyos or even these mysterious little pancakes that we didn’t fully figure out, so we determined we should hurry out to the avenue in front of the basilica where one can find dozens of food options.

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We got distracted, though, as we always tend to do, by the presence of a kitten! We lost our goddamn mind. It was thin and white and precious with yellow and black spots on its fur. I loved it and it was fine with us petting it endlessly. It didn’t seem to care one way or the other, but Jessica was determined to make it realize that she was it’s sun and the moon for the kitten. It remained indifferent and the only thing that pulled us away was the endless rumbling coming from our starving stomachs.

We stopped at Pastes Kiko’s, that wonderful restaurant that I wish was near to me right now. We’ve spoken before about the marvelous hand pies, wrapped in flaky pastry, absolutely delicious, absolutely unhealthy, absolutely divine. I would happily eat their mushroom and cheese one for every single meal — with a side of brocollini; they didn’t have brocollini, I’m just recently obsessed with it, like the lovechild of broccoli and asparagus; delightful — so I had two of them and relaxed in resplendent happiness. There really isn’t much like being in a fast food restaurant in the middle of a foreign country to feel satisfied. 

Quite full of buttery pastry, we waddled back to the Metro and made our way back to the center of town. Though perfectly aware of it, I’m constantly surprised at how big Mexico City is. I know it’s one of the largest cities in the world, that’s no mystery to anybody, but the fact that I’ve seen so much of it and yet barely scratched the surface is wonderful. Like Cairo, London, or even Paris, you could live every day of your blessed life in Mexico City and never fully understand it. It’s monstrous, but it’s a gorgeous beast that loves me for some reason. Maybe I had a bit too much wine before I typed this out, but Mexico City is one of the most joyful places I’ve ever been. I know it has its problem. I’m not blind to them. I see them. And I’m forced to see my undeserved privilege whenever I walked down the street. Still, Mexico City welcomed me like a long lost chilango, and I’ll never be over it. I’m desperate to be back just as soon as I can. It’s absurd that I’m in the snow right now when I could be walking down to the Zocalo. 

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2 responses to “MEXICO CITY: The Donkey and the Scorpion

  1. I’m sorry this will be terribly off topic for this week’s post, but I was reading an old post of yours from Aug 16, 2015, “The Road to Memphis and Thebes” and wondered if you have the catalogue number for the Osiris brick/bed, or any other details regarding it? I know if was awhile ago, and I’m sorry about that, but I am trying to find it in the CG for the Cairo Museum, but no luck so far…Thanks!

    • No worries. I don’t have the catalog number for it, but the description states, “Osiris, lord of the Netherworld and of resurrection, was also the god who granted the return of vegetation and the harvest from year to year. This is why he was pictured with a green skin, the color of luxuriant plant life. The “bed of Osiris” celebrates the aspect of the god. It is a brick with a hollow shaped as the silhouette of the god. The image was filled with earth and seeds. When the seeds germinated, they represented the resurrection of Osiris.”

      Hopefully that helps. I don’t see these items very often in museums, the only other one that I remember coming across was at the Neues Museum in Berlin.

      Good luck!

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