A Week in Mexico City (part 6)

The Diego Rivera Museum

The Diego Rivera Museum is not a museum of his work but one he designed to house his collection of  50,000 or so pre-hispanic artifacts. Incredible. The building alone is a work of art made of volcanic stone in the shape of a pyramid. Even the floors, ceilings, and entryways to the many rooms are etched with images of the gods of Teotihuacan, the Mayas, and the Aztecs.

These are the artifacts of a culture that helped shape the Mexican heart, the Mexican passion for life. The culture that produced a Diego Rivera, a Frida Kahlo. One that lives with death as if it were synonymous with life. Not merely life’s darker cousin but part of its body. Life is not life when separated from death the way a finger stops being a finger when severed from the body.

Wow! Melodramatic much? The lack of oxygen must be getting to me.

One of the few negatives about CDMX is the poor air quality. That combined with limited air conditioning can make some museums and events uncomfortable. So despite my growing interest in all things pre-hispanic, the museum with its close, cave-like rooms, that get tighter and tighter as you ascend the pyramid, is claustrophobic and at times it’s hard to breathe. Time to head back outside, catch my breath, and get some lunch.

La Hacienda de Cortes

We’re on the hoof, it’s hot, and the air is dirty. There are no storefronts along the sidewalk just high walls and, on the street-side, the press of traffic. I guess it’s my day to be claustrophobic. A friend of a friend recommended La Hacienda de Cortes for lunch so we’re looking for it. Feeling kinda lost we come to a doorway in the unrelenting walls. Is this it? We go in to see.

And here it comes, the reoccurring theme, the dichotomy that is Mexico. The restaurant is a freakin’ garden. And I don’t just mean it has a garden. It is a garden. You walk down a park-like path lined with trees, flowering plants, ferns, and other wild ground cover. It’s cool; the air is fresh. You walk up a small stone staircase, through an archway, and into a large forest-like clearing. Tables are laid beneath the combined canopies of many large trees. The Pollo con Mole is excellent and we are visited by squirrels.

This city is full of oases. Whether it’s La Iglesia del Convento del San Francisco, a peaceful church courtyard of shade trees and chirping birds across the street from Sanborns in Cuauhtémoc, the garden in La Palacio Nacional, or Chapultepec park. No matter how overwhelming the city may get or how overpowering the car exhaust there is always an oasis somewhere. Just duck into the nearest doorway and I’ll bet you’ll find one.


A Week in Mexico City (part 5)

Day 5

La Casa Azul

I’m a huge fan of artist Frida Kahlo so The Blue House, where she was born, lived, and died is a highlight of the trip for me.  I’m clocking the line at more than 2 hours. But we’re the lucky ones, having arrived early, we’ve got people stacking up behind us like dominoes.

As a girl she was impaled through the pelvis by a metal rod, an injury that caused health issues and pain for her entire life. She was frequently hospitalized and had to wear these medieval, metal, corset-like contraptions, and, despite wanting desperately to have a child, learned a pregnancy could be life threatening.

She was also a deeply passionate person. It was in everything she did from her lush garden, her collections of contemporary and folk art, to her stormy marriage, divorce, and remarriage to Diego Rivera, her many lovers, both male and female, including Josephine Baker and Leon Trotsky.

Her special artistic gift was the ability to express that depth of both pain and passion which can be seen in all her work. Even in the vivid color palette she used with every color representing a specific emotion.

What I love most is her honesty. Everything she went through in her life, every pain and joy is exposed. Sometimes her work contains social commentary, but she never spares herself. If she has a uni-brow she paints herself with a uni-brow, when she miscarries a child she paints herself covered in blood.

The Blue House was converted into a museum after she died in 1954. Everything was preserved – the gardens, her painting studio, kitchen, and library. Because she was so frequently bed ridden she had a day bedroom and an night bedroom.

There’s a quote from one of her letters to Diego Rivera printed in both Spanish and English on the wall in her night bedroom.

“Never in life I will forget your presence. You found me turned apart and you took me back full and complete.”

My friend, Lisa, who reads neither Spanish nor English well, asks me what it means. Maybe I’m just tired, it’s been a long week. Maybe being around Frida’s personal things, seeing her brush strokes, the colors, her clothes, first hand has made me sentimental. I struggle to maintain composure.

When I can’t speak Lisa says, in broken English, that maybe they loved each other too much. That maybe Frida was two people, one broken, the other too alive. This is why I love Frida. Maybe Lisa is just an especially insightful person, but, unable to read the cues designed to lead visitors to the museum to specific conclusions, she still nailed the essence of Frida’s work. Frida’s ability to convey those feeling in images is the definition of the word Artist.

A Week in Mexico City (part 4)

Day 4

Templo Mayor (Main Temple)

Many things about Mexican culture are difficult for Americans to wrap our heads around. There are deep cultural differences in the way we think about time, the way we think about love, family, and honor. You see it in the holidays, the language, art, music, and food.

One difference I puzzle over is our views toward death. Americans are light-hearted children, unaware that death is lurking around the corner and shocked when it comes. “How could this happen?” He or she was so strong, so vital.

Mexicans are dark and calm, they live with death; they “sit” with it. To them it’s a given. Not just inevitable but necessary. They know death is there, always has been, always will be. There’s actually a term for it – Mexican Fatalism.

While United States culture has developed out of the beliefs and philosophies of European immigrants, “forgetful” of its deeper roots, and so uniquely modern, Mexican culture is permeated with remnants of its pre-hispanic past.

Mexico City itself is located where the Aztec capitol city once stood. The ruins of Templo Mayor, one of the main temples of the Aztecs, is smack dab in the middle of Centro, a 20 minute walk from the hotel. While walking through the ruins and the Museum a piece of the cultural puzzle falls into place.

The Aztecs were big on human sacrifice. Horrific by modern standards, yes, but to the Aztecs, necessary for human survival. It all starts with the God of War and Sun, and the God of Rain (I’ll spare you the unpronounceable names). Again, by modern standards, belief in a pantheon of gods that control the natural world is anachronistic, silly. But for the Aztecs this was a literal thing. They had to make human sacrifices to the gods to protect man from infinite night. The success of their crops and the ability to defend themselves from invaders depended on it.

They weren’t killing people as part of a genocidal pogrom or because they lacked respect for human life but because it was essential to preserving it. There were many gods and if the Aztecs wanted to eat, drink, have children, and protect themselves they had to be appeased.

While we don’t like to acknowledge the existence of human sacrifice, it’s clear the ancient ancestors of the Mexicans believed that without it there would be no life. And for me, the ruins and artifacts show very clearly where Mexican culture came by its acceptance of death as part everyday life.


A Week in Mexico City (part 3)

Day 3


The Pre-Hispanic City of Teotihuacan. Pre-Hispanic. Think about that for a minute. Pre-Hispanic refers to the time before the Spanish “discovered” the Americas and, in the case of Teotihuacan, going back to 100 BCE. Just about everything we commonly think of as Mexican comes from after Spanish contact. Sombreros, Mariachi, Tequila, even Tacos. If the Spanish showed up in the 1600s and Teotihuacan was built in 100 BCE, that leaves a lot of time unaccounted for.

The #1 tip for your visit to Teotihuacan? Bring bottled water. Expect to spend the better part of a day on the Avenue of the Dead, yeah, you read that right, Avenue of the Dead, hiking up and down the three pyramids, in the blazing Mexican sun, where your senses will be assaulted by dozens of vendors selling carved turtles, jaguar whistles, and flutes but, oddly, no one sells water.

The jaguar whistles are super cool and I really should buy one but don’t want to carry a bunch of heavy souvenirs. Carved from wood in the shape of a jaguar head, when you blow into it it sounds exactly like a wild cat roar.

There are three pyramids – the Temple of the Feathered Serpent, the Pyramid of the Sun, and the Pyramid of the Moon. They say sensitive visitors may be contacted by the souls of the hundreds of human sacrifices buried beneath the temples.

Around 3:00 pm, the sunlight has taken on the warm golden glow of late day. I’m out of breath, thirsty, and hot. The vendors desperate to sell their trinkets before the crowds disappear blow jaguar whistles sending wild cat calls into the distance. Barefoot children play flutes. Huge stone carvings of the Feathered Serpent God seem to be whispering to me.  The air is heavy with the blend and melt of sounds and colors and some undefined presence. The pyramid of the sun towers over me.

The Pyramid of the Sun is the 3rd tallest pyramid in the world. It takes us about an hour to hike up, moving elbow to elbow with a huge crowd. Did I mention it’s hot as hell and we have no water? The steps are steep and narrow but we vow to reach the top as much for the challenge as for the amazing view of Teotihuacan whose layout is a representation of the universe as envisioned by ancient architects. It’s pretty cool.

As for being contacted by the souls of the dead I can’t comment. My journal for the day contains only three words. Exhausting. Hypnotic. Eerie.

La Gruta

A day of wrestling jaguars and climbing Pyramids can make a girl hungry. And what better place to eat than in a cave. Whoa. Wait. What?

La Gruta is a restaurant built into a cave or rather a cave converted into a restaurant. We enter the mouth of the cave and descend down a narrow staircase. Remember that movie “The Lost Boys” where the vampire’s human captives live in a tricked out cave? It’s a lot like that but with great food, impeccable service, and it’s refreshingly cool after a day under the sun.

Pre-hispanic seems to be the word of the day, with a menu containing grasshoppers, caterpillars, and other traditional Mexican foods you won’t find at Taco Hell. I choose the Mexican Platter which is just plain delicious tamales, enchiladas and other typical Mexican foods. To be a little more daring, I have an appetizer of sopes de aguacate y chapulines (thick bread-like tortillas with avocado and grasshoppers). I’ve had grasshoppers before so this wasn’t all that daring. No they don’t taste like chicken… more like shrimp. But I really had to pass on the ant larvae.

And, like everything in Mexico, it has it’s own legend. There’s a area of cave wall covered with flaming votive candles. The story goes you light a candle, pray to the gods of the cave, and they will cleanse your soul. In christian parlance all your sins will be forgiven.

Cool! I can start over again and vow to be less of an asshole this time around.

Kinda Sketchy Lookin’

In Portland, Oregon it’s pretty easy to tell when you’re in a bad neighborhood. You might have a hard time finding one these days but boarded up, graffiti covered buildings, rusty old cars up on jacks, trash, broken glass, and pot holes will be a dead giveaway.  A bad neighborhood stands out.

In Tijuana, it’s a little different.  Upscale, gated-communities with smooth streets, new cars in the driveways, and kids on bikes stand out.  You know you’re in one because you were invited and a guard with a gun checked you in at the gate.

The problem is there’s a whole city outside those gates where dilapidated buildings, broken glass, crappy old cars, and pot holes are the norm.  Even the trendy, beachfront area I live in looks like a war zone.

The other day we went to a friend’s 60th birthday party in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Mexicans in TJ give parties in a Salon rather than in their homes. It’s a lot like the practice in the United States of renting a church basement or Event Space at a Hotel for a wedding reception except it’s a lot more common. Instead of a McDonald’s or Starbucks on every corner there is a Salon de Eventos.

While parked in front of the derelict building Siri led us to instead of the Salon, one of us sees, above an equally crappy building on the next block, the sign, hand painted in uneven block letters, “Salon de Evento”. As if on cue for one of those Kids Say The Funniest Things shows, my friend’s kid says, “Hmmm, kinda sketchy looking.”

She isn’t wrong. But a general rule of thumb is if the person throwing the party is respectable you can assume the event location is ok. Maybe. Probably. Ojalá.

We park the car, hoping we can get the hell out of there before it gets dark. But since Mexican parties are notoriously open ended it might be a little tricky. The philosophy I’ve come to embrace here in TJ is “Life is dangerous. Proceed anyway.” With that in mind, we find the entrance, look back longingly at the car, and head up the stairs.

The stuffy, claustrophobic air of the stairway gives way to the delicious, smoky scent of carne asada. At the top of the stairs, we are greeted by the guest of honor, Paulina, dressed to the nines in a 50s-inspired party dress complete with diamond tiara. After the kissing of cheeks, she shows us to a table.

The room is huge with a disco ball casting rainbow colors across a white tiled floor. There’s a DJ setup in one corner spinning American Rock n’ Roll oldies, an overflowing gifts table, and a multi-tiered cake fashioned from cupcakes.

The birthday girl’s brother, dressed like Fonzie, brings a bottle of Gran Centenario Reposado and two shot glasses to our table followed by shrimp tacos, chips, guacamole, and salsa. An adorably dressed little girl approaches the table and wants to know if my friend’s daughter understands Spanish. She does. Shyness is forgotten and they run onto the dance floor.

Sixty years brings with it some rewards. Paulina has spent most of her working life cleaning other people’s houses; her family doesn’t have a lot of money. But, man, do they know how to celebrate a life.

Suddenly, the DJ stops and a troop of Mariachi come up the stairs playing Paulina’s favorite Juan Gabriel songs. Surrounded by friends and family, her daughter taking pictures, her handsome grandsons line up to take turns dancing with her. She cries.

We didn’t sneak out early, before we knew it the evening was over and people were kissing goodnight. The car was where we left it, and in one piece. Turns out the neighborhood wasn’t even a little bit sketchy.

La Playa en Invierno

Does the ocean take on the color of the sky? Blue one day because the sky is blue and grey the next because of the quality of the clouds? I think so.

Today the sky is like a slate of granite and the ocean is grey and fierce. The waves roll in hard, churning the sand against the rocks to geyser upwards in dark, cutting bursts.

Yesterday the sky was blue. The sand was warm. The soft waves gently cooling our bare feet.

So quickly a storm can come in and take you from warming your feet in the sand to stepping backwards against the harsh spray no longer sure how you will make it through the day into the next, and the next after that.

When In Rome: Amibas y Parásitos Intestinalis

I love America. Mexicans frequently resent us even while they benefit from their association with us. And while my patriotism isn’t blind – the US has its problems: school shootings, obesity, rampant consumerism – Mexican resentment gets irritating.

Mexicans are patriotic too. They love Mexico and I understand why. The people are warm, fun-loving, and family oriented. The food is delicious. The life-style is less frantic than in the US. People are happier. They enjoy a type of personal freedom that doesn’t exist in the US. The weather is fantastic. But Mexico has its problems too.

I could write about cartel violence but it’s not evident in daily life here. I could write about human trafficking. There’s a growing population of illegal Haitian refugees in TJ. Who, having been told they could cross into the US from Mexico, risk their lives to get here only to learn it isn’t true. I could write about a 6-day work week/12-hour work day, and average incomes of $3000 pesos (roughly $160.00 US Dollars) a week.

When I get irritated with arrogant Mexicans, I want to tally up all the crap that goes on in Mexico and throw it in their faces. But, let’s be honest, they could tally up all the crap that goes on in the US and throw it in my face and not be wrong. So what am I ranting about?

Well, let’s talk about intestinal parasites. Have you ever had them? I remember my mom saying they were common when she was a kid going from logging camp to logging camp with her parents in the 1930s. She overcooked everything and forbade us kids to eat anything raw lest we get worms. But as far as I can remember I never got them and never heard of anyone getting them. As an issue for the general public, intestinal parasites are a thing of the past in the US.

This is not true of Mexico. We have a young Mexican college student living with us. She was shocked to learn that Americans don’t take anti-parasitic medication. She informed us, in horrified tones, that we most certainly had worms and should be treating ourselves every 6 months with over the counter medication used by all normal, right thinking people.

I don’t know if we have worms. I haven’t seen any evidence of it but I took the medication to make Rose happy. When in Rome.

Some great things about the US – plumbing that works, widely adopted good sanitation practices, drinkable tap water. Nah-nah-nah-nah, nah-nah! America rocks!