MEXICO CITY: A Telenovela

Jessica and I were ready to thrive on a new day. I woke up at seven o’clock in the morning to the gorgeous sounds of the church bells across the street. My body was still too adjusted to my work schedule. When I realized it was such an early hour, though, I promptly resumed my slumber until ten o’clock. That was so much more reasonable. I don’t think Jessica even came close to consciousness for some time after. 

I had a lazy morning, getting my stuff organized, tidying up the kitchen, smiling up at the bright sunshine that flooded the courtyard. It was everything. The neighbor’s door opened and Basha, the gigantic and extraordinarily friendly dog, came galloping in. She shed everywhere, drooled on everything, and it was delightful. She’s one of the only dogs I’ve ever liked.


More importantly, Bitch Cat was back, and she strolled in like she owned the place. And truly, she owned our hearts. She captured them from day one, so I didn’t even think twice about screeching loud enough in delight to wake Jessica up and fed her a massive pile of treats. She looked at them as if she knew she deserved them, slow blinked up at me, and then devoured her treats. I stared on lovingly. 


It took us a while to get ready to get out, but that wasn’t a problem. That was the best part of this trip, really. We didn’t have itineraries or schedules or anything we had to accomplish. We were just there to enjoy ourselves and so we set out to do that. It was nearing time for lunch, but Casa Churro down the road had a late breakfast menu, so we took ourselves down to one of the finest churro restaurants in the entire world. I’m serious. Sitting at a table, we proceeded to order absolutely everything, which was justified and necessary.

For reasons I still can’t understand, Jessica is now obsessed with guacamole. This is the same Jessica who thinks black pepper is too spicy and that eating anything other than ravioli and Indian food is odd. Yet the modern adage about avocados pleasing everybody must be true. Avocados are truly delights. She ordered guacamole at every restaurant we went to, and every single time I could not get over it. As I type this, I still find it bizarre. I am very glad that her palate has started to change as she approaches thirty because that guacamole was legit. It’s better than the standard fare in the United States because the emphasis isn’t jalapeños and crappy tomatoes and an unnecessary amount of cilantro. Here, the star is the avocado and the lime juice that brings it to life. And yes, I just managed to write a lengthy paragraph on avocados. You’re surely used to that.

We feasted on huevos rancheros and quesadillas and esquites and were living our truth and our most blessed and authentic lives. It was lit, y’all. I tried to convince Jessica to practice her restaurant vocabulary, which I had just taught her. All she had to do was nod at our waiter, ask for “la cuenta” and then go about her business. This was not so straightforward to Jessica. For some reason she started muttering a string of French words that were used to indicate a desire for the bill. This wasn’t France, so I was confused. I asked her if she was worried about looking foolish or something.

She sighed, “I’m not worried about looking stupid, I’m worried about looking American!”

And that really resonated profoundly for me. This is a topic that is rather hard to write about in our culture because there is no grey area or middle ground for patriotism. Either you love America or you’re likened to a terrorist. This isn’t fair because the more you grow to love something, the more cognizant you become of the flaws. Travel has allowed me to see my home nation with a different perspective, from afar and from the eyes of others around the world. When we let ourselves escape our comfort zone and throw ourselves into something new and out of the ordinary, we are capable of incredible realizations. 

Rick Steves, that fanny-pack-wearing travel guru on PBS, wrote a remarkable op-ed for the New York Times that, while lengthy, is like reading a sermon. Rick took me to church. He put into words the sentiment that I was never able to delicately express. You have to read the article. It’s linked here. I’ll wait. 

Well, is your life changed? Are your horizons broader? I assume so. If not, this is exactly the kind of thing you need to hear. The message of the piece boils down to this: when we take our passports and cross the border into a new country, we discover what we love about home most and realize what we can do better — travel makes the traveler love America all the more. It makes us realize that we are more than Donald Trump and perceived obesity and a land of endless fast food. We are some of those things, still, but because America is not homogenous and so vast, we are a nation of wild differences. We are a brilliant but troubled land that is loaded with opportunity. In America, even though I don’t agree with the administration in power with any part of my spirit, I’m still allowed to live my life exactly as I want to. I get to live with reasonable freedom and lack of worry and that is a blessing too many of us take for granted. Only by seeing the rest of the world do we see how good we have it.

I took care of the chatting with the waiter, paid the bill, and headed out for the day. Today we had a very important mission that was on par with the urgency of our trip to Olive Garden. We had to get to Walmart or else we would die. You may remember from past trips when I wrote about Mexico City and rhapsodized endlessly on Mexico City Walmarts, and after all this time, my feelings have not changed a bit. If anything, they’ve intensified. I can’t go to Walmart at home now without thinking of the experiences I’ve had at better ones. In Mexico City there are actually fishmongers who help you with your purchases, cheesemongers to provide suggestions and samples, and once there was a sommelier in the wine aisle pouring samples of Mexican wine and tequila. That was wild. 

But the best part of any trip to Walmart for me, aside from the gracious elderly folks who carefully sack your purchases, is the walk there itself. I wasted too much time in the past just taking the Metro, but once I started walking, well I was absolutely enchanted. So many things to see! Jessica wasn’t convinced it was a good idea to walk all of the way there, and I sympathized with her. Inevitably our walks lead to her screeching about some minor inconvenience that threatens her entire existence and permanent well-being. Still, I convinced her by mentioning a cemetery filled with cats that was the halfway point between the apartment and our final destination. This was reason enough to go on a walk for her, and so we set off on the trail we blazed. 


From the onset I was lost. Not physically. I’m getting to know Mexico City like the back of my hand, which I admit is utterly ridiculous. I still don’t know how to get places in my own hometown with a population of 7,500 people. I use my GPS to get around Des Moines. I have no sense of direction in Iowa and I can’t understand it. I have been trying to figure this failing out for years, but nothing has made any sense. So I wasn’t actually lost. I knew exactly where I was. I was just utterly lost in love. (Isn’t that sickening?) You see, dear and beloved reader, at this time of the year, Mexico City is veritably festooned with the blossoms from the jacaranda tree. For whatever reason this was news to me, but it sparked an obsession that I haven’t stopped thinking about ever since. I suppose we should take a little side jaunt as we always seem to do. 

In middle school, I devoured Memoirs of a Geisha and was mortally wounded when I discovered it wasn’t based on a true story. It wasn’t even inspired by anybody real. I was even more stung by the movie which was an embarrassment of the source material. The plot had never been what captivated me, though, it was the culture of the city of Kyoto. I loved the idea of geishas wandering through the gorgeous streets, of balls of savory rice wrapped in nori, of the ballet, and, of course, the cherry blossoms. This is what mesmerized me the most. I wanted to see the cherry blossoms erupting all over the city. I wanted to walk through cascades of floating petals. I wanted to smell the blooms and accomplish a goal. But I still haven’t been to Japan. I’ll get there. 

A few years ago, I thought I would do the next best thing and visit Washington DC during spring break. The Japanese government donated hundreds of cherry trees to my nation and planted them along the Tidal Basin that comes off the Potomac River. In photos, it looked every bit as ethereal as Kyoto, and I couldn’t wait to see both the blossoms and DAME ANGELA LANSBURY. Well, that trip, only one of my dreams came true and I chatted with the owner of my heart, Angela. Never forget that moment when she touched my hand and shoulder and forever cemented her as one of my forever icons.


Thanks to global warming, peak bloom times had shifted later in the season and I saw nothing but the swelling buds of blossoms instead of a riot of soft pinks and white. I was heartbroken. For real, reader, this was devastating for me. Once again I had been robbed of my chance to pretend I was a geisha in pre-war Kyoto. Ugh. Someday my dreams will come true. 

And in Mexico, well my dreams shifted a bit and I discovered that I could saunter beneath cascades of purple and blue jacaranda blossoms and feel every bit as ethereal as I dreamed I would in Japan. They’re not the same, and someday I will see those cherry blossoms, but for now, this was a brilliant substitution. 


Jessica, on the other hand, could not have cared less. She could give less than a shit about the jacaranda blossoms that I was stopping to photograph every five steps. She didn’t understand the thrill they gave me, and I honestly don’t fully understand it myself. They captivated me, though, and I could have been happy for the rest of the entire trip to seek out the most beautiful jacaranda tree in all of Mexico City. 

Soon we were out of the Alameda and approaching one of my favorite hideaways, the church of San Fernando. The church is lovely, but nothing really that special, and it was actually closed because of damage from the recent earthquakes that shook Mexico City so unfortunately. What is truly delicious about this spot is the compact and walled cemetery right beside it that is filled with cats. Seriously filled, reader. 


In the past, there have always been one or two of the gorgeous creatures sunning themselves in the warm afternoon. The tops of the gravestones must get warm because there were several who were basking in the heat. I couldn’t blame them for a minute, I too wanted to nap atop a crumbling tomb. It sounded dreamy. Today there were at least ten and they didn’t really have much interest in Jessica or myself as we shrieked for their love and affection.

Instead of rousing one of the cats, an ancient woman tottered up to the bars and greeted us. This was certainly odd, and I was living for the oddness. She was a maintenance worker, sweeping away trash and fallen leaves with agonizing slowness. She had to be a hundred years old and I was immediately madly in love with her. 

We managed to have a short conversation about the cats. She said that there were at least forty that lived in the cemetery and that they were all very well taken care of by the staff, passers by, and some very dedicated homeless people. I found this utterly charming. Online, people write about how dangerous this part of the city is, and how this part in particular is a hotbed for drugs and prostitution. But, honestly, I don’t understand the Internet’s perception of Mexico City. All I ever encountered were kindly city workers and cats! What’s so bad about that? Mexico City honestly never felt dangerous. It never has. I’ve said it before, and until I have a reason to say anything differently, I have always felt safer in Mexico City than I have in New York City or Chicago. Maybe I just have dumb luck, but Mexico City feels good and fine and I have never even bothered worrying about being jacked for my bling. I’ve seen enough shows about cartels and drug trafficking to know better, but it seems this is an overhyped part of Mexican culture and far removed from reality.

That brings me back to the very last day in Mexico City, so let’s fast forward about nine days for a moment. Jessica and I were killing time before we had to leave for the airport so we decided to go to a mall we found for dinner. Instead of walking or taking the metro, we spoiled ourselves with the unreasonably clean and pleasant Ubers. Our driver was so charming that I could hardly stand it. We all talked about the best times to drive to Cuernavaca and if there were other things to eat in Japan but sushi and then we got to talking about stereotypes. Our driver wondered what we thought about Mexico. Jessica and I unloaded about how everybody back home was petrified for us because we were almost assuredly going to be killed. 

The driver seemed to melt with relief when we told him how safe we felt, how wonderful Mexico City was to us, how we never wanted to leave, how we’d be back a billion times, and how our experiences were in no way similar to that of people on a narco show. That is just a part of pop culture. I can’t say with any honesty that Mexico is completely safe or free from crime, but in my multiple and lengthy experiences, it is nothing like the war zone that is portrayed so often in the news and media. Mexico is one of my havens, or really, one of my heavens, and I will go to the ends of the Earth to defend it. 

All that goes to say is that nobody bothered me in this secluded little area. Nobody propositioned me or tried to sell me drugs. All I saw was a bit of litter and a bunch of fat, happy felines. It was joyous and I think Jessica enjoyed herself tremendously. How could anybody not be living their best lives around a bunch of cats? Don’t get me started on people who claim they don’t like cats. They’re insane.  

It didn’t take long to get to Walmart, and Jessica and I fondly reminisced about Hooker Alley to the side of the store. These were honest-to-goodness prostitutes, but reader, they were very nice. They all carried giant umbrellas and little knockoff designer purses and several cell phones. And they were always teasing each other jovially. It’s a cruel trade, but they didn’t seem to down on their luck. And of course that’s my outsider’s perspective. In my mind, they were just like the staff of the Yamila in La Reina del Sur. They weren’t, of course, but in my mind they were bickering with Ahmed and talking about Sheila and the Gallegos. 

Walmart, I hardly need to tell you, was a dreamland. Jessica and I ran gleefully through the aisles, throwing things into the cart without a care. We started to care more once we had to actually figure out how we were going to get our bags back to the apartment. Halfway through we realized we weren’t going to be schlepping on the metro all the way back crammed with tequila, cereal, and an unnecessary number of towels. 

If you remember my ranting and raving in the most positive manner about Walmart in the past, it will come as no surprise that the best part was the elderly people filling bags. It’s perhaps the most genius part of Walmart in Mexico City. Instead of surly employees or an uncaring assistant or even yourself, ancient men and women stand at the end of each checkout with a beaming smile. They take their work with extreme care, and I have never been able to get over them. Working in teams of two, they cleverly arrange your purchases into bags. If you are smart enough to buy a reusable bag, they seem overjoyed by the challenge. If it’s a big one, they whip it into shape, fold the edges down, and find the best ways to fit every single thing in like it’s a living version of Tetris. I learned, after far too long, that you are supposed to tip them. They were joyous about the twenty pesos that Jessica and I gave them, and I loved them ever more. Why don’t we do this in America? 

As I mentioned before, we weren’t traipsing back loaded down with overstuffed bags. We’d made that mistake before in Paris and I have never heard the end of it. (It was 2011, Jessica, get over it.) Instead we leisurely took an Uber back, and though the evening traffic was beginning to pick up, I didn’t care. I couldn’t have cared less. I had nothing to accomplish, no plans, no stresses, nowhere to be, nothing to do but enjoy myself for days and days. It was bliss. But then things took a shocking turn for the worst, and although we recovered, the news was shocking and we are not over it to this day. 

When we arrived Patrón and Little Chiffon were in the courtyard, rolling around in the warm afternoon sun. Jessica and I, of course, squealed with delight and hurried into the apartment to grab our bag of cat treats. 


We cuddled for what felt like ages, and it was so blissful to be back with Patrón. He’s honestly one of the most angelic felines on the planet, and I’m including my own for comparison. He sheds in a way that can’t be healthy. How does he have any hair left is something I frequently ask myself. My clothes were covered in white hair and it wouldn’t be long before the couch and floor were covered in it, too. 

As we were gushing over the cats, a woman’s voice called out to us, “Otra vez?” You could hear the smile in her voice. Turning, I saw a familiar face. It was the woman who lived three doors down. I had met her briefly before when I had been invited over for coffee during my first visit, but it had been only in passing and my Spanish was barely passable. Now we could have a conversation and I was excited to talk about a subject I’m passionate about: cats. 

Jessica listened to my translations as the woman told us all about her cats, for they were hers and they were beloved by her. Jessica and I concurred that they were like our children and would do absolutely anything for them. 

But before getting into the moment of highest drama, there was something wonderful that happened first. Her name was Paty, reader, and while this might not strike you as anything particularly revolutionary, you must not have been listening to me while I shriek into the void about La Reina del Sur. The most important character in the first season of that perfect telenovela is named Patricia O’Farrell, but those who knew her best called her Patty. She was a socialite and a hopeless romantic, and I wanted to both be her and be her friend. When she killed herself at the end of the first season, I could barely stand it. I wasn’t myself for days. So when this woman introduced herself by the same name, I had to really try and not gasp audibly in delight. 

But then things got bad. Not personally, but we received some truly tragic news. As we were talking about the cats, I mentioned Simba, that gigantic orange cat that I fell madly in love with and never able to forget. Weeks early, Señora Paty informed me, Simba passed away due to urinary tract complications. It was a fresh wound for Paty, and Jessica and I were the dictionary definition of distraught. We were so happy that Patrón and Little Chiffon were there, but the fact that Simba was no longer with us was heartbreaking. If I’m honest with you reader, he was one of the things that I was most excited to see.

Later that afternoon, Jessica and I decided to walk down to the florería that I had frequented the year before, splurging on massive and beautiful bouquets. And by splurging, I don’t mean that at all. Flowers here are unreasonably lush and affordable. It’s a crime not to fill your home up with them. As we wandered through the markets, crossed crazy streets, and ducked into several bakeries, Jessica suggested that we get some flowers for Paty for her loss. This was an excellent idea, and I was quite pleased that Jessica wanted to do something so mannerly. And I felt foolish that I didn’t think of it myself. If anything, I like to imagine myself a genteel gentleman.


We finally got to the shop and bought several bouquets, some for the apartment, and the other, made of gorgeous purple blooms for Paty. 


We rewrapped the flowers and took them to Paty’s door, but she wasn’t home. Instead an old man emerged and looked quite perplexed that we were giving him a gorgeous bouquet. I explained as best that I could what we were doing. It took some exploration of my Spanish vocabulary and hand gestures, but I finally got the message across and he thanked us profusely. Reader, this was the smartest thing we could possibly have done, but we didn’t know this yet.

Later on in the afternoon, I was outside hanging some laundry I’d just washed in the sink, which I was really proud of, when Paty came stumbling toward me. Not drunk or anything, don’t get me wrong, she was just tottering for some reason. I thought somebody had died. Paty was holding back tears as she made her way to where I was worryingly hanging up my soaking wet shirts. 

“Gracias, Benjamin!” 

I was so startled by this turn of events that I didn’t even process what was happening. But then I understood that it was about the flowers and Simba and even I was close to wailing as we talked about how our cats were our children. Then Paty began talking about the night she found Simba dead, and I couldn’t hold it together anymore. It was five o’clock in the morning and his eyes were wide open and staring at nothing and she held his body for hours. Too much for me. TOO MUCH. But then we spoke about the cats she had still, and I told her about my Tiger and his ashes that I wear inside of my necklace, and although Señora Paty and I have had very different lives, at that moment our cats brought us together in a way nothing else could. 

Jessica really missed out. It was like a telenovela, and if you know anything about me, you know that this fueled me, gave me life, reenergized my spirit, and filled me with immense joy. There is nothing so wonderful as a telenovela, especially when you’re living it!

When Jessica returned from her outing, she was pissed that she had missed the emotional moment that she had played such a key role in. It wasn’t much later that Paty arrived back at the door with a picture to show us. It was of the bouquet we had given her with Little Chiffon sitting beautifully beside the blooms. It was unbelievably cute.


And then we showed her the keychain Jessica and I both have with the pictures of all the cats, and to Paty, this was incredible and touching and secured our friendship for good.


We exchanged emails and phone numbers and our friendship was sealed for all time. For the rest of the trip, she beamed at us, spoke to us, gave us advice. And it was wonderful to have somebody in Mexico City that was a friend. She’s like Anne in Ireland, Hassan and Debbie in Luxor, the elusive Lady M in Cairo, Madame Betty in Villefranche, and Dr. Waris in Kenya. Weird friends that I would never have had if I didn’t go out and see the world. I’m so thankful for this odd and kooky cast of characters in my life. 

For dinner, we popped into an Argentinian steakhouse that has long caught my eye, which is wild since I’m a pescatarian. Still, something about the place called to me. My favorite cafe had been shut down thanks to a health code violation, lol, so this was a change of plans. And it was awful, but in the absolute best way. The food was mediocre in the extreme, the cocktails served warm, the decor cheap, plastic food was used in displays, my meal had some kind of inedibly tough strips of something, and the staff was peculiar. From the outside, it’s hard to imagine this is the kind of experience you will have, and we quickly decided this was either a tourist trap or a front of some kind. Either way, it was a hoot and I require that you visit La Esquine del Píbe if you ever find yourself in the area. One of the waiters was belting out the gayest karaoke playlist of all time. He was singing show tunes and Judy Garland and Barbara Streisand and then the occasional Frank Sinatra classic. The man was having the time of his life and I was THRIVING. 


It was a very good day as all days seem to be in Mexico. 

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