A Week in Mexico City (part 3)

Day 3

Teotihuacan

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.

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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.