Before I went to Mexico City, I was warned. Warned of pick-pockets, corrupt cops, fake taxis, the water. I was warned not to carry a purse or camera and to wear only closed-toed shoes. I was advised that in the event of my arrest to try and kill a guard so that they would kill me first, thus escaping weeks of drawn-out torture via a quick death.
It couldn’t be that bad, I told myself. These warnings were from people who’d never been to Mexico. There was adventure to be had, photos to be taken. There were life experiences and lessons to gain in ways I never expected.
My college roommate Sheryl was living there with her husband, Rodrigo, and their 8-month-old and 4-year-old daughters. They’re still alive, I reasoned (at least, I had hoped; she’d stopped responding to emails).
I would surely survive Mexico City. I hoped.
The thick air hit me first. A gassy film formed on my tongue and filled my nostrils as I followed airport directions and Mexican sign language through customs. “Welcome to Mexico,” the agent said, humoring me with broken English. So far, so good.
At the airport I met Sheryl’s parents, who flew in from Long Beach an hour before I arrived. Rodrigo met us with his big, welcoming smile and we made our way out of the baggage claim and into the Mexico heat for the first time.
We jetted away from the airport and onto a highway, learning quickly that in Mexico, you must slam on the break and gas. We raced taxis on roads that didn’t have marked lanes. Crowded buses swerved in front of us. Motorcycles with a father and helmet-less children tried to get through traffic. We made left hand turns from center lanes and had our window washed for a few coins by a mime at a red light.
In Mexico City, you are always on, aware; life is intense. There’s nothing beachy or vacationy or relaxing about Mexico City. That’s why when you speak of Mexico, people talk about cruises to Ensenada and weddings in Cabo. I expected to have my camera slashed off my neck by the crazy man in the plaza rambling about my camera in Spanish. On my last night in Mexico City, I dug my feet into the car floor and nervously held on to the door; I was sure we were going to be carjacked as we drove past dingy night clubs and the warehouses where butchers prepared piles of meat.
As we pulled up to the family’s house on that first day, Rodrigo told us that earlier in the week, local guys almost beat a carjacker to death. We had to, he explained, or else people think they can take over your neighborhood. And the week before that, the lady down the street had her jewelry ripped from her neck as she was parking her car at the end of the day. “It’s the way of life here,” he kept telling me.
I stayed in a house in with my friend, her husband and two kids. They live with his mother and his brother’s family. It’s tight quarters, but the family is close within the confines of the cement, tile and hospitality. They treated me like their “gringa” sister and daughter, giving me their bed, “tres leches”-flavored birthday cake — and a cousin, whom they figured would father my children and be the reason for me to stay in Mexico.
On my first night in Mexico City, after feasting on paella made by the friendly neighbor two doors down, we piled into the family’s Dodge Durango and explored parts of the city at night. I was ready with my leather messenger bag I’d bought for the trip because it so conveniently held my camera and a lens.
“Um, you can’t wear that ... ” I was told. “It’s really American.”
They thought it would be safer to wear my camera around my neck, even if it was out in the open. That way, if I get mugged, I could just hand my camera over. I never expected to make it home with the three cameras I’d taken, but I somehow hoped my robber would at least let me remove the memory card.
In the car, Rodrigo controlled my back seat window from the driver’s seat. We drove to Downtown, where the historic cathedral is lit in orange light. Even at night, small crowds of people stood in the square, taking photos of the National Palace while vendors sold wares and 10 peso bottles of water.
We drove the Zocolo plaza, where storefronts were filled with clubwear that resembled sequined prom dresses. Prostitutes — always in high, high heels — stood under neon lights, waiting to make about $10 for a job. A man selling nothing but brooms and rainbow colored buckets swept the sidewalk. Raw chicken and beef sat in round piles at open-air taquerias as business owners waited for hungry clubgoers. On corners, policemen wearing Robocop masks and carrying big guns stood looking bored. I took in the smells of grilled meats and car exhaust.
We approached Mariachi Plaza, where musicians in traditional black and white suits stood outside waiting to get hired for a party. As we slowed for the stoplight, mariachis ran toward our car, trying to slip pieces of paper like business cards into our windows. They were friendly, though, and pretended to throw fire balls and clean our windows like many do at every stop light. Later in the week, Rodrigo pulled into the plaza and had six mariachis serenade me with passionate birthday songs.
We ignored red lights at certain notorious intersections, where it’s safer to risk a ticket or accident than having your windows busted, car stolen or worse. In a dark section of town, we saw alleyways leading into the black market, where you can buy drugs, weapons, counterfeit handbags, endangered animals and where Rodrigo’s brother once bought a squirrel for a family pet. “If you go in there, you won’t come out,” Rodrigo said, laughing.
I’d only been in Mexico for hours, but I already appreciated California. I was thankful for laws that require upkeep on old cars and and painted lanes on the roads. California’s services — oh, our glorious services — seemed like a dream: Garbage pick-up, safe public transportation, street cleaning. The fact that our buildings aren’t covered in a layer of black grime made me so aware of everything that was waiting for me at home.
I was also aware — and felt slightly guilty — of having my own wants. My life goals, and the idea of making my own destiny, seemed so difficult and distant in Mexico. How could I think about making art or writing for pleasure when this whole country seems to have time for nothing more than work and feeding their children? My dreams of owning a house started to feel selfish as I saw women my age living with their many children, husbands and parents-in-law, with no hope of having their own home or identity. Even worse was seeing a whole district of people living in homes of cardboard and cinderblocks.
Over the week, Mexico was everything I expected. Though the rough edges are undeniable, I saw its beauty. Driving to the pyramids, I held my camera out the window and photographed the graffiti murals that line the highway. Mexico City also has its own collection of public art, from murals to fountains to sculptures. And as notable as it is for crime and corruption, it is a city in love with art, architecture and history.
At _Museo (name)__, my eyes teared up and I reacted toward art in a way I never have as I stood inches from Frida Kahlo’s paintings. I stood by towering pieces created by Diego Rivera, the country’s god-like artist. The grounds of the palace are green and lush are one of the most beautiful places I have been. Flowers bloom with red and purple, oranges are bulbous on trees, peacocks roam like Monterey seagulls and, as we were leaving, a strong rain pounded the ground as the air was still steamy and hot.
Inside the CathedralI’d only seen at night, I was engulfed with century’s-old architecture and golden altars I’d only read about in travel books. As we walked through, church was in session on one end; at the other, a man confessed to a priest as if it were part of the tour.
I was once again lost in a world of beauty, imagination and wonder as we toured Casa Azul, the home Kahlo and Rivera shared that was formerly her parents’ house. That same day, we wandered around __(name of city)_, where I saw a quaint town with Internet cafes, people reading in a park and a street vendor selling churros filled with Bailey’s Irish Cream. I could almost live here, I said out loud.
With 2,000 pesos — about $200 — hidden all over my body, I did most of my shopping at __(name of market)_, where I picked up Dia de Los Muertos figurines, artistic sacred hearts and tiny alebrijes (painted figurines) for friends. Vendors were friendly, used to tourists, and played along as I bartered in my few Spanish phrases (mostly, though, I depended on Rodrigo to do the talking).
The longer I was in Mexico City, the more comfortable I became. The second day in, I stopped using bottled water to brush my teeth and wasn’t as obsessed with germ-killing sanitizer. I stayed away from mayonnaise that is never refrigerated, lengua (cow tongue) and tripe (cow stomach). When the man came by the house selling battered and fried chicken feet on the back of his truck, I thanked him and asked him for his picture, even though I couldn’t stomach the greasy limbs.
I left Mexico different than I had arrived, with thankfulness and a weighty reminder of my own blessed life on my heart. I felt thankful that everyone’s warnings were wrong, but I was always aware that something could have gone wrong. I was thankful, too, for my own life: The freedom to walk down the street without being bothered, the accessibility of clean water, a job I love with steady hours, a trust in the police system. I came home with new art, more earrings, 3,000 photos and more compassion and understanding. Not to mention, a mean craving for a fresh green salad and iced coffee.
Contact Lodi Living Editor Lauren Nelson at email@example.com.