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.

A Week in Mexico City (part 2)

Day 2

The Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe

First stop, La Basílica de Guadalupe. According to the Roman Catholic faith this is the site where Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to Saint Juan Diego. Not being a religious person much of the lore is lost on me, but I must admit the tranquility of the place is uncanny.

The story goes, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared to the peasant, Juan Diego, and asked for a church to be built in her honor. Juan Diego went to the Archbishop to deliver the message. Of course he was laughed at and sent on his way.

She reappeared and said if he met her again the next day she would give him a sign to convince the Archbishop. But overnight his uncle fell sick and he didn’t make it to the meeting.

Seems to me when the Mother of God schedules a meeting you find someone else to tend your sick uncle. Then again I’m in no position to judge the future SAINT Juan Diego.

So he misses the meeting. Our Lady tracks him down saying, “Am I not here, I who am your mother?” That could be interpreted in many ways but to me it says if you had trusted in me in the first place you wouldn’t be in all this trouble. To prove her case, she heals the uncle and causes non-native Roses to grow on a barren hill in the middle of winter. She instructs Juan to wrap the roses in his cloak and present them to the Archbishop.

Roses? That’s the big miracle? But wait. Juan Diego holds the thorny roses close to his chest and when he opens the cloak the roses fall away to reveal a painting of Our Lady of Guadalupe in the blood-soaked cloth.

Long story short, there are two Basilicas sitting side-by-side. The first was built in 1695. The 2nd in 1974. The painting hangs above the alter and numerous miracles have occurred there, including the 1921 terrorist bombing that destroyed the alter and shattered the frame but left the painting undamaged.

Regardless of your beliefs, the painting and both buildings are impressive. I leave feeling refreshed and inspired. It’s kind of a chicken or egg thing… did Our Lady choose the site because it has some special qualities or is it special because she appeared there and people come from all over the world bringing with them hope and good will? I guess you’ll have to go and decide for yourself.

A Week in Mexico City (part 1)

Day 1

“Wow it’s so clean!” is our first spontaneous group exclamation. Of course, any city has its best foot forward in the tourist areas but the crumbling infrastructure of TJ and SoCal is conspicuous by its absence in CDMX. You can actually drive around the city without the constant shocking jolt and swerve of negotiating pot holes.

Even so, I recommend hiring a driver. You’ll avoid the crowded metro and when I say crowded I mean body-crushing crowded like that Star Trek episode “The Mark of Gideon“. Locals say it’s not safe for naive travelers and, if you can’t haggle in Spanish, cheaper than taxis/uber. The typical traffic day in CDMX is worse than the worst traffic day in TJ so tackling it could ruin your trip.

We are staying at Hotel Fontán. Not a luxury hotel by any stretch of the imagination but located on Paseo de la Reforma within walking distance of so many cool sites you could do a walking tour and never need a car. It’s perfect.

We check in, then walk to Café de Tacuba for lunch, passing through Alameda Central park lined with vendors of colorful artesanía (handicrafts). The area is closed to cars on Sundays so it’s a bustling hub of bicyclists, tourists, and families enjoying a day in the park against a backdrop of stunning cultural landmarks too numerous to name. But including, el Palacio de Bellas Artes, el Museo National de Arte, and the park itself.

Getting into Café de Tacuba is our introduction to the ubiquitous crowds. Everything is mobbed. But the Tortilla soup and Enchiladas Especiales Tacuba are delicious and the atmosphere… Estudiantinas (musicians) line the staircase, serenading you as you go up, museum worthy paintings line the walls, along with intricately painted tiles, Spanish arches, and wrought iron touches… is magical.

In the evening, we walk to La Cervecería de Barrio for a few beers. Of course the conversation turns to politics. The United States seems to be on everyone’s mind. Maybe in response to the Trump Presidency, his “Mexican Wall”, and fears it will escalate the U.S./Mexico border humanitarian crisis. Or maybe just because the U.S. still rules the free world despite its problems.

I haven’t even been in Mexico City for a whole day and I’ve already been told three times by three different people how much everyone the world over hates the United States. Gosh thanks. The honesty is refreshing?

Despite the causal throwing about of the H bomb people are gracious and welcoming and my less than great Spanish receives a kinder reception here than in TJ. So far so good.

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.