Tag Archives: study abroad

Mexico City, Revisited: Road Trips Beyond

14 Aug

As I’ve mentioned in the previous two posts in this series, Mexico City’s constant crowds will force most anyone with means to venture out from time to time. I toured many of the smaller cities in central Mexico during my four months there, usually on long weekend or over the holiday weekends for the Mexican bicentennial and the 100th anniversary of the Mexican Revolution, both of which occurred during my stint there. None of my journeys were quite the road trip in Y tu mama también, though they all had at least one memorable moment.

With two exceptions, they were also all by bus. That may sound terrifying, but the Mexican bus system between major cities is one of the country’s more impressive feats. It’s at least as comfortable as its American counterpart, and sometimes more so; on some buses, a few extra pesos will earn one in-flight snacks and warm towels. Buses feed out of four Mexico City bus stations in each of the cardinal directions, all easily accessible by Metro and well-located for swift escapes. These buses, at least, are on time, clean, and populated by pleasant travel mates. The only real annoyances are the dubbed bad American movies inevitably playing on the TVs, and a few realities of Mexican highway life beyond the bus companies’ control, from ugly wrecks that clog traffic to understaffed tollbooths to animals wandering into the road.

I wrote about my Mexican bicentennial journey to Dolores Hidalgo, San Miguel de Allende, and Guanajuato some time ago, and it is hard to beat the sheer Mexican chaos of that long weekend. My only other trip to the north took me to Tequisquiapan, where my host family had a cozy vacation home in a gated community. Tequis was a lazy provincial town, though Day of the Dead festivities did drum up an anti-Halloween protest in its zócalo. The north is Mexico’s conservative heartland, and Gonzalo Junior bemoaned the incessant norteño music—Mexico’s answer to country—on the radio. On our full day there we ventured out early for breakfast in a sun-splashed village before a hike up the Peña de Bernal, a stone monolith, one of the largest of its kind. In the afternoon we made our way to a Mexican winery—not bad, for a nation new to the wine cultivation—and whiled away the evening with another game of cards.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

The Peña de Bernal from the village below.

Dreary Toluca rules the first valley to the west of Mexico City, though the majestic Nevado de Toluca with its year-round snows towers over the city and bestows some sense of grandeur upon the crowded plain. (One of my previous trips to Mexico took me up toward the Nevado and into the mountains beyond, though that’s a story for another time.) Some of Mexico City’s most extreme sprawl has been outward into this neighboring valley, though there are some pockets of solitude up in the pine forests that separate the beast from Toluca. One day the host family and some of their friends took my roommate and I up to the Desierto de los Leones National Park, the site of an old monastery, and then moved on for some horseback riding in the rain before a delicious meal in a little hilltop diner.

Further west, Michoacán is a state of great beauty, of rich indigenous heritage, and of serious conflict in the Mexican drug war, the only place in my travels where such qualms ever surfaced. The flavor of the month cartel at the time was La Familia Michoacana, not long after replaced by the Caballeros Templarios (Knights Templar), both noted for their weirdly religious take on drug trafficking. They waver between rebellion and fractious alliances with the national cartels, building loyalty by pumping money into the small towns in the mountains of Michoacán. It was only in Mexico that I began to understand just how much geography—those towering hills and twisting mountains—can make it difficult for a state to assert any authority. La Familia grew bold during my time in Mexico, descended from the mountains, parked buses and trucks across the highways into the state capital of Morelia, and set them alight. Thankfully, my eclectic group from the university had no such obstacles.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

Streets of Pátzcuaro.

The first stop in Michoacán was Pátzcuaro, a small city on a lake whose utopian origins I’ve discussed before. The Pátzcuaro of 2010 was no utopia, but it was a beautiful place, the wind whispering down its mountain lanes and cooling its plazas. We arrived late at night and wandered the silent streets in search of a hostel, finally stumbling upon one with a few concrete blocks disguised as beds. Woken by roosters the next day, we hiked up a mountain to survey the scene, then descended to the lake, where a boat ferried us out to the island of Janitzio. It’s a famous Day of the Dead destination covered in terraces and quaint homes, though on this weekend it was a poster child for indigenous poverty: there were only a handful of tourists on the island, yet it featured row after row of shops, all selling identical, tacky products, and no business on the way. In spite of it all there was beauty there, a sight best witnessed from the lookout in the upraised fist of a giant statue José María Morelos on the island’s peak.

None of the outlying cities I visited can quite match the scale of Morelia, whose entire city center is a colonial jewel. Our first day there became an endless walking tour of intricate buildings, but there was something worth seeing around just about every corner. We visited on a hopping weekend; an international film festival featuring a few big names was in town, as was a superb bread festival, with championship breads arranged in shapes of trains and eagles and Mexican flags. We split our time there between two hostels; the first was the Tequila Sunset, whose name tells you all you need to know about it, and the second was a far swankier establishment owned by a man who had just come back from a few years in Bloomington, Minnesota. Naturally, we bonded, and the evening of wine and cheese on the rooftop swiftly degenerated when he invited in all his friends.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

Par for the course on the streets of Morelia.

One trip south of Mexico City was to a place I’d been before. My dad, a Spanish professor, has been running study abroad trips to Cuernavaca since the early 2000s, and I went down to visit for a time during one of the early years. It had been years since I’d last seen Gerardo, the Canadian expat who runs the program, but it was a seamless slide back into life in the City of Eternal Spring. My first night involved a dinner on the zócalo with Gerardo, who seemed to know everyone in the square and the nearby artisans’ market; after some shopping, I settled into his home on the outskirts for some quiet contemplation.

The next day, joined by Gerardo’s wife and his friend Álvaro the Marxist Economist, we bought some beer and went for a drive up into the mountains for lunch at a trout farm, where we mused about Mexican politics and joked about Rubén Aguilar and loved life beneath the pines. Back in Cuernavaca that evening I made the acquaintance of a young Canadian who knew Gerardo, and he took me on a novelty journey to a spa he often visited with his Mexican girlfriend (now wife). I sat in a temazcal, an Aztec sweat lodge filled with pungent herbs, and sweated away my troubles before a good, hard massage. After that we ventured down into the Cuernavaca club scene, though the pictures of that night have, alas, “mysteriously” disappeared. But there was no time to linger in that realm, as Gerardo took me to breakfast the next day with a woman from an outlying village whose life had nothing in common with the leisure of the past few days.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Trout farm in the mountains above Cuernavaca.

Somewhat less placid than contemplative Cuernavaca was an arranged trip to Taxco by the university for all the study abroad students. This was also not a first time visit, though this jaunt proved a bit different than a day trip with the parents when I was twelve. On the way down the bus stopped at the Grutas de Cacahuamilpa, a large cave complex to the north of Taxco, and wandered through towering stalactites and stalagmites and other features I can’t possibly remember. Down its in depths was a spring pure enough that we could drink straight from it, the only water I’ve had that can rival the stuff that comes from Duluth taps.

Taxco is an old silver mining city, and one of the best-preserved colonial gems of Mexico. Even the major streets remain narrow cobblestone lanes, winding their way up the mountainside to which the city clings. Its centerpiece is the church of Santa Prisca, a stunning baroque icon on its zócalo with awfully translated English signs next to the Spanish ones. Thanks to a rainy season deluge, however, touring much of the city beyond the church and the silver markets proved a chore. We settled in a bar for a Mexican soccer humiliation at the hands of Ecuador, then skirted the raindrops on the way back to the hotel. (Two umbrellas were pressed into service as doors on our van taxi, as the real door was nowhere to be found.) The rain did little to dampen spirits, however, and the party raged on in hotel rooms for most of the night, culminating in a nighttime swim in the pool and an ill-advised journey back down into the city in search of tacos, which somehow managed to go off without a hitch. Most of the group suffered ill effects the following morning, though I was raring to go, ready to push through the mists of Taxco and on to the ruins at Xochicalco. I’d been here before too, and it was a good thing, because the rains drove us from the site far too soon.

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

Santa Prisca in the rain, Taxco

I never did get to Puebla, another regular stop on the central Mexico circuit, though I did pass through on a week-long journey into the country’s southeastern reaches. The first stop was Oaxaca, yet another city rich in history. We spent our first day at Monte Albán, a large Zapotec ruin atop a mesa-like mountain overlooking the city, but Oaxaca’s real wealth is in its living culture. The city is a culinary paradise, home to the riches moles and the purest mezcal and other delicacies, to say nothing of some good, crunchy chapulines. (Yeah, fried grasshoppers.) Southern Mexico retains its indigenous roots as well as anywhere in the nation, and that night the zócalo was the scene of a whirling pageant of dance. The next day our hostel gave us a wide-ranging bus trip around the area, with a visit to the Árbol de Tule—the fattest tree on earth!—and a Zapotec weaving operation. Next came Mitla, a ruin small in size but intricate in its Zapotec mosaic work, and then, a long, bouncing road up to the Hierve del Agua, a petrified waterfall. The tour ended at a mezcalería, where the Australian in our party won us a free bottle through feats of epic liver destruction.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

The fattest tree on earth, Oaxaca.

That night, I chaperoned us along on to another bus trip, this time to Puerto Escondido, the lone beach trip of my four months in Mexico. It involved normal Mexico beach activities, albeit in a sleepy town with just enough tourism to give it a hippyish edge. (One expat, when asked of her origins, told us she was from the stars, though she’d also spent some time in Cincinnati.) We found a couple of cabins far enough up the shore for some privacy, but close enough to walk into town along the beach. For once, I set my itinerary aside and devoted myself to blissful nothing: leisurely meals in seaside shacks, long nights of festivities on the beach, lazy scrawling in a notebook in a hammock before drifting into a nap and waking without a care in the world.

San Cristóbal de las Casas

San Cristóbal de las Casas

The next bus took us up to San Cristóbal de las Casas in Chiapas, the farthest southeast and the poorest state in the Mexican union. I covered our Thanksgiving day trip to San Cristóbal and the Zapatista community in rebellion in a previous post, but it was a valuable stop, one that made me think long and hard about how to find my place in the modern world. The next day the bus schlepped us along to Palenque, stopping at a pair of waterfalls along winding mountain roads before coming to the great Mayan ruins in the jungle. Its sprawling palaces peek out of the greenery, and its architectural variety and detail surpass anything in the center of the country. After declining numerous offerings of mushrooms and one last long overnight bus trip, my last Mexican road trip came to an end.

*  *  *

These reminiscences on Mexico tend to be gushing tales of discovery and dalliance. That reflects reality, up to a point. But that isn’t the whole story, and I’d be remiss not to mention the other side. In a way, Mexico was liberation: I was wildly free to reinvent myself and surrounded by excess, in which I participated willingly. And yet I still had a vague sense that I was in this world, but certainly not of it. I both poured myself in the fun and remained a detached observer from on high, an exhausting effort that can be hard to articulate. More than once, returning to my Mexico City flat, I’d slump back in the elevator and run a hand through my hair, drained by the fullness of the life I lived, wondering what it all meant. For the first time since I’d started my aggressive writing two years prior, I had writer’s blocks: suddenly it didn’t come naturally, the world I’d built through those words no longer quite held together. In my relentlessness I was missing something; I didn’t always know what, and even when I did, I didn’t have the ambition to seize it. It took a trip abroad to see what was closest to home; a confrontation with different worlds to learn my place within the one I knew.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

Lost in dreams in Puerto Escondido.

People often like to talk about finding their “true selves.” I find this deluded. We have no one true self; we are a wide array of forces and histories, all wrapped up in one body and one mind, trying to make sense of the whole mess. For me, Mexico is one of those parts, thrown in there with everything else.

What did Mexico give me? I can try to put it into words. There was a host family that showed me what family life ought to look like, and a friend or two who showed me the meaning of companionship. Those bonds endure. It showed me how to push outward, how to surrender parts of myself to others, even as I struggled with deeper truths. It showed me a country impossible to paint in black or white, a nation that swallows everything up and makes it all its own. It made me rethink my politics and my worldview, and gifted me with the man I quote more than anyone else. Above all, it turned me loose, however haltingly, and at the same time underscored how much more there is to life than mere freedom. Five years later, I await a chance to go back—but I carry it all with me, part of a living history, and those four months live on, forever renewing an old belief. Viva México, dador de la vida.

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Mexico City, Revisited: Exploring the Giant

9 Aug

My last post tells the clichéd study abroad story: fun host family, mediocre foreign university, basic navigation of a different culture. I would like to think that my time in Mexico, however, goes beyond the most basic of study abroad tropes, and it owes that difference to the city I lived in. Mexico City is so gigantic that no one can dream of making their way through it in four months, though I managed to visit practically all of them on the day a pair of old high school Spanish teachers swung through the city on a visit. No East grad’s journey through Mexico is complete without a day on the canals of Xochimilco with Mrs. Bergum and Mrs. Melchert.

My university, the Ibero, gave its exchange students an easy way in via a Friday “class” that took us to sites around the city. The first trip with tour group took us straight into the city center, where a kindly but long-winded gringa used a bevy of props to lead us through some of the city’s more famous attractions. She knew her stuff, and we followed her across the great plaza known as the Zócalo—every Mexican city has one—and into the Metropolitan Cathedral and finally to the ruins of the Templo Mayor, the centerpiece of the old Aztec capital, rediscovered only during excavations by the national electrical company in the 1970s. But as we meandered through the site museum and the guide droned on and no promise of lunch came forth, a friend and I bailed. With a few quick steps out a side door, we left behind the self-conscious curation of Mexican history and entered the Mexico of today, a cobblestone street lined by small shops and teeming with the seamless ballet of urban life, as the shoppers stop and start and flow along down the avenue. We disappeared into a taquería, came out with some streetside delicacies, and, two days later, came down with diarrhea.

Leaving aside long nights on the toilet, the journey down the side street kicked off my many unguided wanderings of the city, and the Zócalo was a natural place to revisit. The Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, the center of the great imperial city that rose to glory under the Aztecs and became the seat of Spanish power in the northern hemisphere. At its center, a massive Mexican flag, the eagle on the cactus lilting in the breeze. The government, the church, and those Aztec ruins all spectate from the sides, but this is a living plaza, always the center of the action. Often a protest, sometimes a concert or a party, though never more novel than during my final visit in early December: a skating rink! This Minnesota boy could have watched for hours in delight. The rink featured at least a hundred uniformed attendants, all there to help out the poor Mexicans as they shuffled about the rink, clinging to the walls in desperation. Further along the intrepid city government had devised a mini snowman-building station, and an artificial sledding hill made an appearance as well.

Mexicans on Ice!

Mexicans on Ice!

The rink was one of the more lavish flourishes of mayor Marcelo Ebrard’s urban vision. Ever since it gained home rule in 1997, the Federal District has stayed firmly in the hands of the Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD), a left-leaning party that has been decimated in the rest of the country thanks to the egotistical handiwork of Ebrard’s predecessor to the top spot in the Federal District, Andrés Manuel López Obrador. To be fair, López Obrador’s administration helped push Mexico City’s urbanism toward the vanguard, and under PRD rule, the city has had a renaissance of cultural life and chic vigor. A large urban elite allows for a center-left party to flourish, and even if it’s not on the cutting edge of the war on poverty, it runs a fairly clean and efficient ship, which is no small miracle south of the border. But Ebrard lost out to the more ruthless López Obrador in the 2012 succession battle, and the PRD split into two, its moderate core left only in Mexico City. The result: a city whose governing vision has more in line with New York or San Francisco than it does with the villages just beyond the Valley of Mexico.

If the Zócalo is the heart of Mexico, then the Alameda, some six blocks to the west, is its soul. Or so I thought when I first laid eyes on the great Diego Rivera mural back when I was in high school, the one that showed the whole of Mexican history promenading down its leafy walks on a lazy Sunday afternoon. On one of my first Sundays in Mexico City I walked from my place in Polanco up Paseo de la Reforma to the mural. I sat before it for a while before venturing into the square itself. The Alameda of 2010 had no great politicians or artists striding up its walks, but there was a complete cross-section of the country: the wealthy on parade, young lovers in the bushes, beggars, the inescapable rows of vendors, protesting leftists, break-dancers, and every possible shade in between. And on a bench in the middle of it all, a dreamy American kid, enmeshed in that urban fabric and in love with it.

A dreamy Sunday.

A dreamy Sunday.

The rest of the center city has chaotic but ordered streets, and is well-serviced by the packed but slick, highly subsidized, rubber-tired subway system. The urban grid conforms to the Spanish colonial Laws of the Indies, with churches and government centers grouped around plazas of varying importance. There’s a bike share system, a number of pedestrian streets, and little monuments or plaques at every turn. The architecture impresses, from a gilded post office to the Casa de los Azulejos, the original home of the Sanborns owls that now roost about the city on the department store’s logo; from the grandiose Palace of Fine Arts to the iconic Torre Latinoamericana, long the city’s tallest building. To the North is Plaza Garibaldi, perfect for one’s mariachi rental needs, and unrepentant debauchery once the sun goes down.

Paseo de la Reforma is the artery that feeds the body of the beast, a grand avenue that belongs on a short list with the Champs-Elysees, the Rajpath, Broadway, and Las Ramblas. Every major intersection brings a traffic circle and a monument, the statues ranging from Columbus to Aztec emperors to Roman goddesses to the city’s most famous icon, the Angel of Independence. It’s wide enough to handle hordes of both cars and pedestrians, and on Sunday, the whole thing shuts down for bicycles. The neighborhoods along it to the west of the center are the trendy and artsy core: Roma Norte, the gay-friendly Zona Rosa (under Ebrard, Mexico City legalized gay marriage in 2009), and La Condesa, the D.F.’s answer to Williamsburg. The streets in each neighborhood have themes, with national heroes and dates in the city center, European cities in Roma, and Mexican states in La Condesa. La Condesa is at once the most happening and perhaps the least Mexican place in the city, a cosmopolitan neighborhood filled with fusion restaurants and clubs for travelers from afar. It was a popular home for the European students at the Ibero, and I spent many nights in its apartments and parks, dining or heading for the Pata Negra, the club where all twenty-somethings’ paths seem to cross while in Mexico.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

View up Reforma from Chapultepec Castle.

West of La Condesa sprawls Chapultepec Park, a giant green space that makes Central Park look quaint. It hosts many of the city’s great museums and monuments, from modern art to anthropology to Chapultepec Castle atop the hill. Below Chapultepec is the monument to the Niños Heroes, six boys who wrapped themselves in Mexican flags and threw themselves from the ramparts rather than risk capture when the American army sacked the palace in the 1840s. Los Pinos, home to the Mexican president, is here as well, but so are the unavoidable vendors, brackish lakes, and price-gouging toilets. There is no such thing as a free leak in Mexico.

North of Chapultepec and Reforma, beyond the Parque Líbano, lies my old haunting grounds. Polanco is densely urban, filled with apartment towers and shopping streets, though it’s statelier than La Condesa, and the streets are so robed in trees that it seems sheltered from the oppressive crowds downtown. The streets here, all named for great philosophers or writers, make one want to stroll to a café and discuss some great work with other learned people. I meandered its placid streets whenever I needed to get out of the apartment and breathe, stopping for an ice cream or touring the Tianguis market on Fridays, perhaps flagging down the tamale bicycle. At its heart is the Parque Lincoln, a quaint monument to the American president, who gazes across the street at Martin Luther King. A few blocks north is Presidente Masaryk, Mexico’s swankiest shopping street; a few blocks south, the Campos Elíseos: Champs-Elysees, Elysian Fields, one of those streets that just basks in presumption, playing host to embassies and luxury hotels.

Street corner in Polanco.

Street corner in Polanco.

Further up the hill the men of letters give way to mountains, and the lanes loop around walls that guard the estates of Lomas de Chapultepec. I myself lived right on the line between Lomas and Polanco, on Monte Elbruz, a short wedge between two highways that still managed to fill the obligatory quota of 7-Elevens and Starbucks on a Mexico City block. My tower overlooked the Periférico, the ring highway that loops about the center of the city. At night I’d gaze down from the picture windows as the traffic weaved along the canyon below, threading its way through a small regiment of financial and corporate towers. The cool mountain air poured in through the slits beneath the windows, breathing life back into the giant’s lungs.

To the north, a pyramid, a church, and the State Department share a square. It’s the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, still better known as Tlatelolco. This was once a booming native market town, but now this name recalls a different memory, the moment that ripped the mask off the PRI regime. In 1968, the government gunned down scores of student protesters here. The regime ruled ably for forty years, overseeing an economic miracle that pulled Mexico to the brink of the first world. The 1968 Olympics were supposed to prove that greatness, and celebrate the “perfect dictatorship,” the system that seamlessly transferred power from one party boss to another, all the disparate factions of Mexican society united within one machine. Instead, they kicked off a national nightmare.

The next thirty years saw a slow but steady decline. The party couldn’t buy off the far left the way it could with other groups, and its patronage machine went from competence tinged by low-grade corruption to a downright bloated bureaucratic cesspool. The nation’s fortunes rose and fell with oil prices and presidential terms, and after a stolen election in 1988, the PRI was in crisis. It held on for another twelve years, enough time to oversee the lurching implementation of NAFTA and a privatization scheme that simply put state agencies into the hands of wealthy cronies rather than fostering genuine competition. To the credit of President Ernest Zedillo, he was willing to hand off power when the PAN won the 2000 election. The PRI returned to the presidency in 2012, but it is a shell of its former self, with the El Chapo jailbreak showing the bankruptcy of Enrique Peña Nieto’s pretty PR machine. The ghosts of Tlatelolco have come home to roost.

Further north Reforma splits in two, and the Calzada de Guadalupe and the Calzada de los Misterios lead the way up to the Basilica of Guadalupe. The current basilica is an unfortunate modernist thing, but all the beautiful old churches and chapels on the hill at Tepeyac are still there, and one can still mount it for a view of what a sixteenth century miracle has wrought. The shrine marks the site where the Virgin Mary revealed herself to Juan Diego, and the image seared on his tilma became the foundation of a nation. Mexico is a fractured place, filled with hundreds of indigenous tribes and regional cultures, and riven by stark mountain ranges. Many of its Catholics practice something that my Polish and Irish grandparents could never recognize as their own.

Juan Diego's tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

Juan Diego’s tilma with some not-so-subtle symbolism below.

But the Virgin courses through all Mexican life, and the flag hanging around the framed tilma drives the point home. While the southern Latin American countries killed their natives and the Andean and Central American ones still live in serious racial tension, Mexico approximates a blended nation. Reality still shows stark divides, but ever since its great revolution in the 1910s, Mexico’s official narrative has aspired to a blended mestizo identity, the raza cósmica that takes pride in both its indigenous roots and its Spanish inheritance. The PRI, for all its failures, built a country around that vision. It is no small victory, and while some racial divides endure, the rest of the world has something to learn from Mexico.

In the far north lie the ruins of Teotihuacan. The name means ‘City of the Gods’ in Nahuatl; the story claims that the Aztecs, still in their exodus phase and wandering the Valley, stumbled through its ruins and figured that no man could have built them. Sitting atop the Pyramid of the Sun today, it’s not hard to see why: its base rivals the Great Pyramid in Egypt. But if the Aztecs aspired to godlike status, they found it soon enough. They found that sign they’d awaited, the eagle perched on a cactus, and build a city to rival Teotihuacan in the center of Lake Texcoco. Tenochtitlan stunned its Spanish conquerors with its size, beauty, and cleanliness, though that did nothing to stop them from slaughtering the lot of them and filing in the lake.

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan

Today, the only living remnant of the Aztec imperial city is on the far south end, in Xochimilco. These canal-filled gardens sum up Mexico simply: a historical artifact kept alive by a raucous party on boats, with vendors paddling along the rented trajineras peddling food and flowers and booze. The traffic is just as hectic as the Mexico City streets, the oarsmen worryingly young, yet no amount of social scrutiny can dim the festive atmosphere. Here Mrs. Melchert showed incredible poise under pressure, earning applause from the Mexicans as she maintained her balance after our trajinera got rammed just as she was leaning out to take a picture.

The south side of Mexico City has more wealth than the north, and it is here that one finds the sprawling campus of the national university (UNAM), home to over 250,000 students; the giant Estadio Azteca is here as well. A little ways further north are two charmingly gentrified neighborhoods with cobbled houses and colorful streets and histories as well. San Ángel features a flower market, a Diego Rivera studio, and a monument to some Irish-American U.S. soldiers who turned on their new county and joined the Mexicans during the U.S. invasion. They all got slaughtered, but they still remember them in San Ángel, and I happened to visit on the day of a remembrance parade that included the Irish ambassador. Better known is Coyoacán, Mexico City’s Greenwich Village of yore, home to the famous blue Frida Kahlo house, where one can learn of all her eccentricities. Just up the street sits the Trotsky museum, where budding little Marxists shepherd the tourists about the bullet-riddled rooms of the exiled revolutionary’s final home. The bullets from Stalin’s henchmen all missed their marks, but later, an ice axe did not.

Not wanting to cause my host family or the university and undue ulcers, however small the real worry, I never ventured on foot into the far eastern reaches of Mexico City. As the city climbs up out of the valley, there in the shadow of the twin volcanoes of Popocatépetl and Ixtaccíhuatl, the city degenerates into row upon row of concrete housing. The largest slum in the world is here, beyond the D.F.’s border with the State of Mexico, and there’s a ring of badly built homes creeping its way up the mountains on all sides of the city. They’ve come here in search of something more than subsistence farming, the countryside drained of peasants by a growing economy. It is a zone of misery, though Mexico has nothing on the poorest of the poor; in fact, thanks to a growing economy, there are now more Mexicans heading back south across the border with the U.S. The American immigration crisis these days comes from Central Americans, who endure a hellish journey across Mexico to the border. This journey usually avoids the insanity of the capital and instead works its way up the Atlantic coast.

Mexico City faces many issues, perhaps the most worrying being its need to suck up water from all across the country, but otherwise, its problems have solutions. Yes, the mountains that ring the city hold in the smog, though it’s not as bad as it used to be; methods to clean up the sky lurch along. My lungs had no trouble adjusting to the Mexico City air during my workouts, as many past travelers had suffered. The soft former bed of Lake Texcoco, filled in by the Spaniards, causes some structural problems, and leaves the city vulnerable to earthquakes. But the government can and does take steps to stabilize these things, and it’s hard to foresee a catastrophe. The once-worrying taxi system has been cleaned up some. And the drug violence that plagues some parts of Mexico doesn’t really appear in the Federal District: it is just too large and sprawling, and the state has too big of a presence, for any of the cartels to move beyond the run-of-the-mill crime operations found in any big city. At the time I traveled, Washington D.C.’s murder rate was over three times the D.F.’s. I can’t recall a single crime, even minor theft, befalling one of my fellow foreign students—and we weren’t always the most self-aware or cautious bunch.

In a way, my complaints about the traffic how easily it is to lead a comfortable life: the most serious inconvenience of D.F. life is a mundane problem that’s not much better in, say, Los Angeles. Large parts of Mexico City are placid if not downright lovely, which both makes life easier and makes one understand why the Mexican upper classes aren’t terribly bothered with the slums to the east. Their productive, comfortable lives can coexist with the extreme poverty around the city. Seen from the ground, the contradictions that form this city are easier to understand, its vast scale easily gathering it all in. No city did more to drive my fascination with the systems of urban life, and its allure will long endure, no doubt pulling me back before long. For good or ill, Mexico City is without equal.

Next time: Provincial towns and cities of Mexico.

Mexico City, Revisited: The Road to the Ibero

5 Aug

Five years ago today, I arrived in Mexico City for the start of a four-month sojourn south of the border. I was twenty years old, both open to the world and anxious about stepping out of line; a Georgetown international affairs student with strong convictions who was nonetheless feeling more than a little adrift in his studies. And so I headed south for a semester abroad, on a quest for meaning in one of the world’s most difficult cities to comprehend.

I landed in Mexico City in a daze that afternoon, frustrated by wrong immigration forms before a search through the throngs behind the gate for a sign with my name on it. This was my third time in the Valley of Mexico, though the first two visits had been mere snippets to tease me, invite me back for more. This time I’d spend a full semester in the belly of the beast, and put my presumptions of cultural competence and world-wise traveling to the test.

I arrived with a backpack of personal effects and two suitcases filled with a wardrobe heavy on sports apparel that simply screamed “American”—though when one is over six feet tall and white as snow, there’s no disguising it anyway. (For the most part, that is; a handful of people, furnished only with my name, assumed I was German.) This unabashed embrace of my homeland seemed to unsettle my eternally deferential roommate, another American who, in the rare moments we actually talked, sought the experience of an ideal Mexico.

002

Gazing wistfully out my apartment window…

Anti-American attitudes in Mexico, in my experience, were limited to a theoretical corner of the academy. I never suffered anything more than a light ribbing as a guero, and I couldn’t count the number of times a Yankees cap struck up a baseball conversation. There’s no purity in the post-NAFTA world, and yes, something may be lost in the mix. But the whole experience seemed to reinforce a couple of Octavio Paz aphorisms: first, that local culture will always divide us, even in a globalized era; and second, that the visitor ought to integrate, not assimilate. We must settle for dialogue, playing off one another’s quirks and learning to make do. There is no eternal essence of what Mexico is; it’s a living history, always in motion, evolving into some new blend of the stories its people create. I have no Mexican blood in me, but Latin America is an inescapable part of my family history, both for my father and now for me. This trip sought to cement that curious root, and blend it in with all of my other histories into something that aspired to coherence.

*          *          *

I wasn’t without guides: I lived with a two host parents in a cozy ninth floor flat they shared with their adult daughter; an older son lived nearby, and swung by nearly every day. They were veterans of hosting foreign students, there to both provide sanctuary from the insanity and turn us loose to explore as much as we could. I also had the silent roommate, whose aloofness was one of the disappointments to the program. I recognized more of myself in him than I cared to admit, but my exuberant push outward had no place in his Mexican journey. What could have been a brotherhood stayed stagnant; though they hid it well, the perplexed host parents worried over his quirks, wondering what they could do to draw him out.

For my part, I had little trouble sliding in with the Meléndez family. The small-world coincidences made it easy: a good family friend of theirs had married a man from Kewaskum, Wisconsin, not far from where my father grew up. They’d gone to visit at some point, and a Green Bay Packers bumper sticker adorned the doorway into my bathroom. (Another cultural blend: the family loved American football, and the children would often bet on games. The daughter, Gina, always won.) Not only that, Gina had spent some time in Lombard, Illinois, where my mother’s family lived for many years. Her knowledge of English was especially handy on one of my first days in Mexico, when the shower drain clogged up and my normally reliable Spanish degenerated into a lot of frantic gestures and repeated cries of “ducha!”

My host father, Gonzalo, was a retired army dentist. He had the patient, relaxed air and easy smile of a man who’d found his home in the world, and always toyed with his wife and giggled over the world’s absurdities. His jefa, Lupita, cooked up a storm and doted as all host mothers must, doing her best to put some meat on my bones. I never got the full story, but it seemed they came from some money, once inhabiting a house near that of billionaire Carlos Slim before they downsized to the well-heeled flat. The children were both graduates of the Universidad Iberoamericana, my study abroad destination, with Gonzalo Junior now working in IT—free support for the cranky old laptop I had at the time—while Gina developed powdered food products.  It was an easy family to join. In the evenings we’d relax with telenovelas or a football (or fútbol) game, though every now and then they’d invite over some friends for rousing games of dominoes. We’d sip away at our tequilas and have a grand old time, hearing all the gossip there was to hear.

Gonzalo, Gonzalo, and Lupita

Gonzalo, Gonzalo, and Lupita

Tequila gets a bad rap in the U.S. thanks to the tastes of drunk college kids, but the real stuff is a delicacy, unbesmirched by the additives that produce the famous tequila hangover. Proper tequila comes from blue agave in Jalisco; anything other liquor from an agave falls under the blanket term mezcal. Mezcal often takes the form of Mexican moonshine—hence the famous worm, used to mop up its impurities—but true mezcal is a nectar of the gods. Only recently had it really found its way north out of the mountains of Oaxaca and into Mexico City, but the rich smokiness and the delightful lack of headaches made it one of my finest discoveries.

*          *          *

I could have used a bit of that mezcal before the daily bus commute, but by the end they proved an excellent education in willpower. Indeed, there was no greater test of my readiness for Mexico than my daily commute from my apartment to my university on the western fringe of the city. Morning rush hour on Paseo de la Reforma is a daily exercise in gymnastics and human contortion: just how many people can we stuff into this bus? One or two might go by my stop before I’d finally find one with space to clamber aboard. I’d wedge myself in through the back door of the bus, pausing only to make sure that all of my appendages made it also. By the end I’d become a ruthless transit rider, knifing my way in and towering a head above all the Mexicans, making sure I had some space to breathe in the rush hour fumes.

My daily chariot was one of the finer specimens on the Mexico City streets, a lurid orange and green machine that had seats for about twenty and standing room for a good seventy, depending how well we all got in touch with our inner sardine. The bus rides never were very chatty, though it was always a serendipitous day when I got on a bus with the guitar player. There were millions of people in the city, but it was always the same damn guy. His songs were uplifting, poppy dreck that I’d have hated if they were in English, but they unfailingly brightened my mornings. His presence was well-worth the eventual generous tip.

A surprisingly tame Anillo Periférico near my apartment.

A surprisingly tame Anillo Periférico near my apartment.

Two days a week I had a class that began at seven o’clock. Never a morning person, these rides were a daily struggle, but they beat the traffic, and there were small delights here, too: as I got off the bus along the highway in Santa Fe, high above the smog and out on the outskirts, the stars were far brighter than they are in the environs of any American city. I would have stopped to admire them, if doing so hadn’t invited death during the crossing of the highway that separated the bus stop from the gates of the Universidad Iberoamericana.

*          *          *

The early morning bus trips were worth it for the man who held court for two hours in a chilly Ibero classroom. Rubén Aguilar Valenzuela’s modest résumé boasted stints as a Jesuit priest, a leftist revolutionary in El Salvador, and the chief spokesman for Vicente Fox, the right-leaning Mexican president whose 2000 election broke 70 years of rule by the “perfect dictatorship” of the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI). Fox was a dynamic campaigner but a bumbling President, and Aguilar is now immortalized in Mexicans’ minds for his oft-repeated phrase, “Lo que el presidente quiso decir” (what the President really meant to say…). But he stuck it out, even though he shared neither his President’s ideology nor his foot-in-mouth disease, because he believed in the democratic transition, and its success transcended such petty wars. He believed what he preached, and devoted his mornings to lecturing college kids with a fairly radical message: the answer to Mexico’s plight came not from expecting the free market to rule all nor belief in the power of the government to rectify things, but in a stronger civil society.

Aguilar found a curious home in the National Action Party (PAN), and no doubt it cost him some allies. The right-leaning party might not have matched his social agenda, but in the early 2000s its free market ideology helped it avoid the machine politics that plagued its rivals, the PRI and the leftist PRD. Its image was about as pure as possible in Mexican politics. By 2010, however, things had begun to sour. President Felipe Calderón’s militarized drug war drew Aguilar’s ire; he called the army’s involvement a farce, and pushed for legalized drugs. Instead, Calderón doubled down, and his party crumbled. Frustrated by the failure of the right, a fractured left, and a tide of PRI revanchism, Aguilar settled for lecturing to the next generation of his nation’s leaders, along with one sleepy American kid whom he’d quiz about Mexican baseball players in the MLB.

*          *          *

The Iberoamericana is a gated maze of long, airy brick buildings—puro ladrillo, in the words of Gonzalo Junior—and a replacement campus thrown up after the 1986 earthquake demolished the old campus location. It has a longstanding relationship with Georgetown, though American students were few in number; just two of us formed the entire Hoya contingent. The two of us were inseparable during that trip, and that friendship endures. Joining us in the exchange student melting pot were a boatload of French and Germans, a few Brits, and scattered Latin Americans, along with some Mexicans on loan from universities outside the Federal District. The head of the program was a Texas dame who used her spurs to shred Mexican bureaucracy at will, though she retired abruptly mid-semester, leaving a quietly efficient German in her place.

The Ibero owes its ties to Georgetown to its Jesuit identity, though I never saw a priest on campus, nor did I ever find the well-hidden chapel. No, the Ibero is a finishing school for the Mexican elite, a place where one goes to be seen. Most spent the entire day at school to avoid the traffic; groups spent much of their days sprawled out in chairs at one of the on-campus restaurants, these rare open, semi-public spaces free from vendors or the noise of urban life. Everyone sat about chatting and watching European soccer matches, taking slow lunches, perhaps venturing up to the gym to work on some muscles to show off for the ladies of the Ibero. Class start and end times were suggestions, though everyone got there in the end, and readings came not from books, but from copy machines in the bowels of the library.

The library was a highlight of the otherwise unremarkable Ibero campus, particularly for the novelty of two of the floors in its tower. These floors, you see, were designed principally for napping. After my morning class I’d pull two of the IKEA chair contraptions together and slump into oblivion, joining the herd of dozing students. In a daze a while later, I’d edge the curtain open a little and read something for class, or perhaps the New Yorker or its Mexican counterpart, Nexos. My Georgetown buddy and I probably drove the rest of the exchange crew nuts with our frequent lapses into intellectual digression, but we were never far from the center of the party, either. Oh, how we lived.

Ibero gate, with the library tower behind.

There was still some intellectual life at the Ibero, spurred along by the most talented of the students and professors. In addition to Rubén Aguilar, I enjoyed the presence Ivonne Acuña Murillo, a sociologist, who pushed us through a heap of theorists, some of whom still crop up in my writing. (“Order and progress!”) But there was an unfortunate trend, particularly among the graduates of UNAM, the monstrous national university, to resort to a clichéd, vulgar Marxism. (There was some delicious irony when one of them assigned us an Octavio Paz reading that trashed such people and failed to recognize himself in it.) They also just weren’t very good teachers, and were stuck at the Ibero trying to communicate their desire to save humanity to a bunch of bored rich kids. But oh, did one of them try, and ever so earnestly, flailing as the students tormented him and hauling me up to the front of the room to recount all of the U.S.’s transgressions in Latin America.

Another gem was the art professor, an American expatriate whose name now eludes me. I wasn’t in the class, but this delightful old crone had a fondness for Minnesota accents, and thus invited me to join on a few of their field trips. She’d wander along the gallery, cigarette dangling from her mouth as she dismissed some intricate work with a single droll adjective; any work by Diego Rivera would elicit a muttered “fat man” before moving on. But her knowledge was boundless, and at times it would pour forth on some obscure piece no one else would notice. She also had connections, and made sure all us Americans voted via a federal write-in ballot before inviting us to a penthouse party of expatriates on the evening of the 2010 elections. One of my more formative moments owes her an assist.

*          *          *

Trips home were inevitably even more congested than the rides up the mountain, and during the first two months tended to coincide with the daily storm brought on by the rainy season. This added to the fun, with torrents of water overwhelming the drains and making for precarious leaps in to the bus. The stop outside the Ibero was even more chaotic than my starting point in Polanco, with a steady stream of peseros lurching past, often with kids ordering us to board if we wanted to go to Tacubaya, as if the destination painted on the windshield wasn’t enough. More than once, a fellow exchange student coaxed me away from the stop to the neighboring bar, the inexplicably tagged The Big Yellow.

The constant traffic takes a toll on anyone, and harrowing incidents along the road were commonplace. A crash involving an orange truck scattered citrus all down Reforma, with stains visible for weeks afterward; another day, I witnessed the aftermath of an accident that probably ended the life of a roadside vendor. On one of the dark early mornings, the bus hit something very large; the driver got out, inspected, then kept us going on our way, nonplussed. During one rush hour the bus sideswiped a car, leading to a bickering match between the two drivers while traffic crawled on about us and half the passengers dismounted and hiked up the freeway to the next stop. It became all too clear why Mexicans with means all take weekends away from it all, and my family, with a place in superbly named Tequisquiapan, was no exception.

The smaller cities in Mexico’s colonial heartland can stand on their own as destinations, and proved fascinating cycles outward. This was especially true for someone who is both highly social and introverted, in need of both unbridled life and retreats into that other great Mexican theme, solitude. But make no mistake: they were only temporary respites. The aim of the trip was to sink as deeply as I could into the wonders, and the insanity, of Mexico City.

Next time: Touring the city.

Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas

27 Nov

It’s late November 2010, and for the first time in my memory, Thanksgiving week doesn’t involve that drive south across Wisconsin, south to family and football and gluttony and sneaking a beer from the basement fridge, that sense of rightness taking hold. No; instead I’m far to the south, sprawled in a hammock on a beach in Puerto Escondido, Mexico, writing idly in a little red notebook, nodding off, and then waking with a sudden start, at first unsure of where I am before the delight of paradise takes control. What bliss.

Truth is, though, I’ve never been very good at staying in the realm of bliss for very long. I’m too restless. I need action, I need meaning. And so I’ve deigned to drag my eclectic traveling party on to another destination, one that will require a bit more thought. Our grand tour across southern Mexico won’t just stop at the beach; instead, it has to go back up into the turbulent heart of this nation, as far away from any façade of Mexican serenity. We’re going to spend Thanksgiving with the Zapatistas.

We leave Puerto Escondido on an overnight bus, the road hugging the coast, and we wake somewhere near the crossing point into Chiapas, Mexico’s southernmost state. It shares a long border with Guatemala, and its twisting mountain ranges and jungles are near-impenetrable: this is as far as one can get from the borderland Mexico so many Americans know, the last frontier of a nation trying to convince the rest of the world it belongs in modernity. A state whose people trace their roots back to the Mayan empires of past millennia. The coach rolls through the dismal state capital before scaling the ramparts of the Sierra Los Altos. Base camp for Thanksgiving weekend is the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city whose name pays homage to Bartolomé de las Casas, the friar who convinced the Spanish monarchs to have mercy on the natives. In the heart of indigenous Mexico, some things never change: after the Zapatista revolt in 1994, the one man who managed to tried to bring the rebels and the government to the table for dialogue was the bishop of San Cristóbal, Samuel Ruiz.

Our first day in San Cristóbal is a tame one, as we wander the sprawling markets and sample the most real coffee we’ve ever encountered. The sky is grey, the air cool up here in the hills, and though the city bustles with tourists and boasts restaurants from every corner of the globe, it still has a sense of quiet, a sense of reverence. We dine at a Lebanese place and find a colonial hall that shows a documentary on the Zapatista revolt, brush up on the details of their unexpected 1994 uprising against the Mexican state after the ratification of NAFTA. A group of peasants in ski masks stood no chance against the Mexican army, but the Zapatistas captured the hearts of many in Mexico and beyond, a native group that knows the power of a symbol and stays true to its roots. The fighting stopped years ago, but the Zapatista caracoles remain autonomous, carrying on life at their own pace.

We wake early the next morning and begin our Thanksgiving Day pilgrimage. We board a van that rises up from San Cristóbal de las Casas on a newly-built road, winding its way even further up into the sierra. I marvel at the sheer vastness of mountains, those barriers that no free trade agreement could flatten. Pictures cannot do it justice, the verdant green hills and the towering cliffs, the homes clinging to their sides, perched so precariously that they seem vulnerable to any great wave of change, yet sitting on plots of land that have barely changed over the past thousand years. We come to San Andrés Larrainzar, where the government and the rebels met in a church atop a mountain, reachable only by a long stair marching straight up its side. Here, the parties negotiated their peace accords some fifteen years prior. They answered no questions, resolved no disputes. There are no signs of that now, though: life goes on.

The driver pulls to the side of the road and announces Oventic. The four of us clamber from the van and make our way over to a gate that blocks off a side road. A man in a ski mask awaits; he scarcely reaches my chest, but he still has an air of control. We deliberate, and he asks us our reasons for visiting. We answer as respectfully as possible. A few other masked men mill about, murmuring in Tzotzil. We wait. Are they suspicious? No; this is merely the pace of life in Oventic. Explosions echo further down the road. Has the fighting resumed, on this day of all days? No; a religious procession is climbing the way, shooting off fireworks as it goes. Before it arrives, we are summoned inside.

The cement street cascades down the mountainside, wooden buildings lining both sides. Shops, meeting halls, a women’s center, a school, a clinic with an ambulance. Another masked man, this one somewhat older, guides us downward with a few declarative statements. We may photograph the murals along the walls, but not the people. The street empties into a level clearing, a schoolyard with a basketball hoop. The children tear about the schoolyard, all save one, a boy settled beneath a tree, plugging away at his schoolwork with contented poise. The two of us steal a quick grin. No, they don’t have much; most everything is made of wood, and the public restroom is little more than a trough. But it is no failure, either: behind the gate, there is an ease to life not visible in the poor Mexican communities on the outside, a difference most obvious in the children of Oventic.

Our guide, warming to us, takes us to a pair of stores filled with Zapatista swag. The shopkeepers know just enough Spanish to conduct a sale. Foreign capital in action, even in a commune. The mess of modernity, the impossibility of true isolation: they try to build an autonomous community, but if it were not for their international allure that draws in us tourists of revolution, history would have forgotten the Zapatistas. The Mexican government would have crushed them in short order. They may not exactly be a model for other struggling villages; few others can match their PR savvy. But they’ve succeeded, and even if they do not have much wealth, they certainly have their pride. We are shown the gate and flag down the next pickup truck to head down the highway, offering the driver a few pesos for a ride in the bed.

The truck dumps us in San Juan de Chamula, a dusty town of 50,000 that serves as the gateway to Zapatista country. The feel couldn’t be any more different: the poverty is immediate and anything but idyllic, the vendors aggressive even by Mexican standards, with one little girl dropping her wares on our lunch table at a restaurant and refusing to leave. It is a different world, but yet another world awaits: the inside of the town church is something wholly alien for all of us. The nave is dark, lit only by thousands of small candles, its floor covered in pine needles. The worshippers kneel before countless altars to saints, chanting in Tzotzil, the aroma of incense lulling everyone into a trance. Christian and pagan faith, blurred together in the haze. We stumble out and wander the square in shock for some time before coming back to our senses.

A van takes us the rest of the way back to San Cristobal de las Casas, the heart of indigenous Mexico somehow reborn as a cosmopolitan magnet for adventure-seekers. We meander its streets, sit in the placid zócalo and try to imagine an army of invading masked men. We visit an Irish pub, climb a hill to a church, fool around on a curiously placed exercise course. Then, Thanksgiving dinner. No turkey, just pizza in a colorful Italian place, with the Tuscan countryside painted on its yellow walls. A bit of wine, a beer run to the Oxxo, and a night of drink and debate.

What’s it all worth, this rebellion in the backlands? An assertion of identity that transcends any losses, makes all the costs worthwhile? A noble but failed effort, doomed by the march of progress? Delusion on the part of a bunch of uneducated natives? It’s nearly seventeen years since the Zapatistas first took up arms. Seventeen years of fitful fights and useless treaties, of paramilitary incursions and aggressive government responses. Surges of interest, with the tales of Subcomandante Marcos circulating the internet, the foreign support flowing into San Cristóbal. Claims of a new left, a postmodern revolution, the birth of indigenous rights in the Americas. Moments when it seemed like it would all go wrong, when the obstacles blocking the Zapatistas seemed more imposing than the mountains of Chiapas: the brutal massacres and that image of Marcos, shrunk down to size by the austerity of a Mexico City plaza, desperately trying to rally the revolt into a broader movement with his “other campaign” during the 2006 presidential race. It wasn’t to be: whatever its gains in Chiapas, the EZLN has not changed life for the vast majority of Mexicans. It never did quite know if it was a localized revolt or a national movement, and the question of scale kept it from taking off. The paradox of the modern left: it understands the importance of unique identities and is happy to harness the power of the state, but there is no bridge between the two.

Most of those trappings are gone now, as are the forceful rejoinders from the Mexican state. Forget the leftist rhetoric, the development theories, the ideals of efficient economics and what a modern nation should look like. There are only people, trying to make do. Maybe someday the government will finally be able to provide for Mexican peasants high in Chiapas; it’s certainly made some progress on that front, however haltingly. Maybe someday free enterprise will open up those mountain passes, or they might fade into irrelevance as globalization’s losers empty the land. Consider me a pessimist on both fronts.

“Utopia is a disease of the intellectuals, not the people,” said Octavio Paz. It was a disease that afflicted even him, a critic of the revolt that destabilized the treaty that was supposed to welcome Mexico into the modern world. For the children of Chiapas, there is no economic theory, no national liberation, no grand vision of a changed world: simply life as it has been, and their daily struggle to make it all work. Culture may shift and erode, but its shadow is long, and its loss drains the world of some of its wonder. It will endure, and with it the people of Chiapas, trying to carve out some stability in a world increasingly wont to discard any sense of order and tradition.

The next day is a quiet one, all in San Cristóbal. And then another van, this one north, past more Zapatista art and a few military installations, winding through the mountains to a pair of waterfalls and the ruins at Palenque. The Mayan city in all its splendor, then its drab modern counterpart, a mercifully short stay. Then another overnight bus ride, once again putting pen to paper as I try to give it all some order. Mexico defies order, of course, and that may be its greatest lesson: even in its turbulence, it holds together, pulsing with life, a life I’ve found during my four months south of the border.

It is a pulse that is, blessedly, alive and well in my own family, and it’s time to make that drive south across Wisconsin again. Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Deep in the Heart of Mexico

16 Sep

Today is the 203rd anniversary of Mexican independence. Not a particularly significant milestone, but not far removed from the Bicentennial of the nation so aptly described by its former dictator, Porfirio Díaz: “so close to the United States, so far from God.” Over one long weekend in 2010, one American kid got to see the whole paradox of a nation summed up in one little road trip. This is the story of my Mexican Bicentennial.

The semester I spent in Mexico City wound up being four of the more important months in my young life, and I could easily turn this blog strictly into a string of reminiscences and have plenty of content to keep it going. I was enrolled in the Universidad Iberoamericana, a Catholic university on the west side of the city, safely perched in a glitzy new neighborhood up in the mountains, far above the bedlam below. I didn’t live on campus, though; instead, I was down along the dried-up lake floor in the heart of the Valley of Mexico, living with a superb host family and a kindly but rather mute roommate. Every day, I pushed myself in through the back doors of a green-and-orange bus and gave my four pesos to the person wedged in next to me; the fifty standing passengers between me and the driver would pass my fare forward, and five minutes later, someone would hand me an utterly useless ticket proving that my fare had made it to the driver. It was a fascinating, and rather heartening, insight into the human condition: it would have been absurdly easy to not pay a single bus fare while crammed onto those buses, yet every single person aboard would pass their fare forward and clutch their stupid little ticket when it finally made it back to them.

Even so, Mexico City is not for the faint of heart, and it takes a certain type of foreigner to be crazy enough to stay for four months amid that teeming mass of humanity. There were only six Americans in my program, and plenty of people back home expressed their worries about my chosen location, though telling them that Washington DC’s murder rate (at the time) was nearly quadruple that of Mexico City did get their attention. Indeed, reality suggested Americans have been conditioned to panic over Mexico by grisly news reports from across the border: Europeans still came to the Iberoamericana in droves, and I can’t remember a single story of even minor theft among the friends I met. The terror of drug-related violence is largely confined to a handful of border and Pacific coast states.

Still, Mexico City isn’t somewhere you go because it’s a default fun study abroad location; it’s somewhere you go because something pulls you there. And so I was thrown in with a group of people who, despite some very disparate backgrounds and personalities, shared a desire to be right in the middle of everything, and the wherewithal to be able to reflect on the meaning of the leap we’d taken. It was no surprise, then, that four of us (one fellow Georgetown Hoya, another American, an Australian, and myself) decided we were going to do the Mexican Bicentennial the only way it could be done.

We knew where we had to be for the Bicentenario, and planned a road trip accordingly. Our destination: Dolores Hidalgo, a city that has officially taken on the rather pretentious name of Dolores Hidalgo cuna de la independencia nacional (Dolores Hidalgo: the Cradle of National Independence; the “Hidalgo” is also an add-on to the city’s original name of Dolores.) It was in this city that, at dawn on September 16th of 1810, Father Miguel Hidalgo rang the bell at the church to rally the first revolt against the Spanish Empire. The revolt fell flat, but inspired the independence movement, and has the distinction of being one of the few moments of popular rebellion in the Latin American independence movement. (Most other countries gained it amidst political intrigue and/or invasions following Napoleon’s invasion of Spain.)

We set out from the university on Wednesday the 15th, and sailed our way up a Mexican interstate north out of Mexico City. As is my wont, I had an atlas open, noting every little town and crossroads we passed in the scrubby, mountainous country high in the central Mexican plateau. Before long we were shooting down a two-lane road toward Dolores Hidalgo, and a suddenly we passed a torch runner flanked by a bunch of slow-moving cars. An Independence Day torch relay, we assumed. How lucky that we’d chosen that route!

The novelty wore off the fourth time we passed one of these torch relays, which we now realized were not remotely official. Trailing behind each group of runners was a pickup truck with a whole bunch of people in the back, happily downing beers and getting an early start on the festivities. Oh, Mexico: what a delightful mix of tackiness and transcendence you are. We snapped up some pictures of the runners, and in time, a giant Mexican flag alongside the road greeted us to Dolores Hidalgo.

This being Mexico, our arrival was anything but smooth. First, we learned that the Mexican Army, on hand to provide a massive security presence lest any drug cartel grow ambitious, had shut down the entire center of the town. We eventually found our hostel, but there was nowhere to park, and, of course, the hostel had found some way to lose our reservations. They were apologetic, but there was only one open bed. We snapped up that one bed, and some hostel employee’s family member offered us parking at some spot on the outskirts of town. Two of our party went to park the car, and the other two of us, wondering vaguely if we’d ever see our friends again, set out in search of lunch. We found a lovely colonial-style hotel with a buffet right off the main Zócalo (plaza), which, to our chagrin, would later prove the culprit for a case of diarrhea.

Once the car was successfully stowed in some mysterious garage, the four of us spent the day wandering the city center, maneuvering our way through bored soldiers on buses and the obligatory army of vendors hawking every piece of Mexico swag imaginable. I snapped up a Mexican flag (later forgotten in a port-o-potty during the diarrhea outburst) and a silly Christmas ornament, both of which complemented my overpriced Mexican soccer jersey superbly. We struck up a conversation with a Mexican-American about our age, a kid who’d grown up in the States but was back in Mexico due to immigration limbo, and watched the less-than-stellar Guanajuato Orchestra. After that, we drifted back to the hostel, where the Mexicans were throwing a party as only Mexicans can. Given our lack of beds, our plan for the night was a simple one: don’t bother with sleep, and crash when beds open up in the morning. Traditionally, Mexicans celebrate Independence Day the night of the fifteenth, as Porfirio Diaz didn’t want to bother with getting up to lead the ceremonies at 7:00 AM, when Father Hidalgo had called his countrymen to arms. On this occasion, however, they decided to go back to the old way in Dolores. We’d have to be back in the Zócalo by 4:00 AM anyway if we wanted to watch the main event, so why bother?

Needless to say, much of the rest of the night was a blur. My vague memories involve dancing about the hostel rooftop-turned-bar, some German girl offering me scotch, a rap battle between our Australian and our new Mexican friend, catching some of the festivities from Mexico City on television, and a fireworks display over Dolores Hidalgo. One of our number got the diarrhea and retreated to our sole bed, but the rest of us made it through the night. We kept to our 4:00 departure time, staked out an excellent spot in the Zócalo, and awaited President Felipe Calderón’s arrival.

My diarrhea hit around six.

I made a few desperate trips to the 5-pesos-per-use port-o-potties, but couldn’t make it. I passed off my camera and retreated to the overbooked hostel, where I made the intimate acquaintance of a seatless rooftop toilet and then tried to rest on a couple of couch cushions lain across the concrete patio. I joined a herd dazed and/or passed-out guests lying on benches or under tables to escape the cool mountain air, desperately trying to block out the norteño music still blasting from the speakers at the bar.

One miserable hour later, five helicopters went screaming directly overhead, maybe twenty feet above the roof. They landed a block away, and in time I could hear President Calderón in the distance, giving the famed Grito de Dolores: “Viva Hidalgo! Viva Morelos! Viva Allende! Viva la independncia nacional! Viva México!” The bells on the cathedral peeled, and the crowd roared. In spite of my sickness and my sleepless delirium, I grinned in awe.

After a fitful morning of sleep we set out for San Miguel de Allende, a colonial beauty of a city popular among American expatriates. Once again, parking was a chore, but we found a quiet churchyard down a hill from the city center and spent an evening wandering the streets and admiring the architecture and the abnormally high concentration of attractive women. Dinner proved something of an ordeal, as we sat for nearly two hours awaiting our pizza as the tables around us were served; our waiter, who simply could not understand our frustration, patiently explained that we could not get a refund because our pizza came with salsa.

I took over the driving duties that night down the desolate road back to Dolores Hidalgo. The next morning it was barely recognizable, back to being a sleepy central Mexican town, all the revelers and vendors and soldiers long-gone. After a delicious meal, we were on the road for Guanajuato, winding through the mountains en route to the old silver mining city.

After dumping one of our number at the airport, we proceeded to spend the next four hours driving in a loop around downtown Guanajuato in search of parking. We soon learned every last detail of the city’s meandering underground tunnels, tight one-way colonial streets, and bustling cafés. Eventually we found a near-empty parking ramp that had been hiding just off the main drag, and, having seen the entire city center during our parking odyssey, were content to spend a leisurely evening dining and drinking wine at a restaurant on an open-air, second-story bridge over a street. After two straight days of madness, we could watch the revelry down below from a contemplative distance, laughing with delight as some of the same characters from that first night in Dolores went by. So many things had gone wrong for us in the past few days, I mused, and yet we were still having the time of our lives. Mexico in a nutshell.

Before heading home the next morning, we hit up the Guanajuato Mummy Museum (a bit overrated, but sufficiently gruesome, and worthwhile if only for the ridiculous souvenirs available at the end) and a preserved silver mine with several areas that had not been closed off to the public nearly well enough to keep out intrepid Australians. Then we got back on the Mexican freeway and drove back to Mexico City, through the remnants of Hurricane Karl and past a bevy of roadside stands, all of which specialized in strawberries and cream. (Economic diversification hasn’t quite caught on among Mexican vendors quite yet.) After that, it was back to the university, where our dear leftist professors would sigh and wonder what the point of all of that merriment was, there in a nation with rampant poverty and corruption and brutal violence brought about by the drug cartels. The promise of Father Hidalgo’s revolt, they said, had never come to fruition, and some of them thought it never would. We were celebrating a checkered past with mindless debauchery in the present, doomed to the same cycles of mistakes.

So much of my time in Mexico was devoted to that study abroad cliché of “broadening horizons,” and I really needed that push into the unknown. But, perhaps more importantly, it also cycled back, and made me look inwards, to ponder what is worth our time and love in such a vast and complex world. At the beginning of my trip, my writings were grandiose and political; a few days before I set out on the Bicentennial trip, I wrote a little reflection on my first 9/11 outside of the United States. In it, I reaffirmed my American identity, not out of any respect for traditions of the past or the delights of the present, but out of a commitment to its dream for the future. The American Dream. It was an understandable stance for a kid who’d spent his entire life trying to live it. By the time I got to the beach town Puerto Escondido in November of that year, my writing had drifted into meditations on love and place in the face of the absurdities of modernity.

It took me a while to understand what was going on—perhaps a year, I’d say—but in time, I learned Mexico’s greatest lesson for an ambitious college kid, both for himself and how he thought of his own country. My Mexican professors were missing something in their worldview, as was I, when I thought only of what the future might bring. Instead, we have to embrace that past, in all its messiness, and do what we can to make sense of it. That wave at the top of this blog is not on Lake Superior; it is rolling up out of the Pacific Ocean near Puerto Escondido. They are those waves that, to paraphrase F. Scott Fitzgerald, bear us ceaselessly back to the past.

Mexico will always take me back to the past, whether that means those four months of madness or a deeper reflection on how Aztecs and Mayans and Spaniards came together to form a troubled yet vibrant nation. But it will also push me outward, and it’s important to remember that, as I settle into this city that represents my own past, and bury myself in the vagaries of local politics. It requires constant balance; a cycle, you might say, as I try to make sense of my dreams, my memories, and the immediacy of the here and now. Thanks to Mexico, that won’t ever be too difficult.