We spent ten days in Mexico City over the summer, right on the heels of the road trip. Mexico City is the third largest city in the world with a population of 22 million. It's a place that will impress you with its museums, restaurants, and utter chaos.
Alex travels to Mexico City at least once a month for work and has always said, "you gotta come with me sometime, you guys would love it!" So the kids and I called his bluff this time and got on the airplane with him. He blinked at us and said, "Oh.....you really came? You realize I work 99.9% of the time I'm in Mexico City, right? Just so we're cool, you're gonna be super alone."
That's no problem. The kids and I can handle anything. I become much more bold when I'm flying solo with the kids because there's no doubt -- it's 100% on me to get sh*t done and make the memories happen. I am happy for the kids to see me handle foreign situations because they learn the world doesn't end when you make an ass of yourself. That last sentence reminded me of our Paris years and now I miss Paris terribly.
We did a house exchange with friends from Seattle who now live in Mexico City. Their large, private, gated home in a fancy neighborhood in Mexico came complete with a cook, a housekeeper, and a driver.
That's all very nice but look at what they got in return! They got our house, which does not cramp your space with people taking care of you. Our home has at least half its electrical outlets in working condition. Our yard is nice and uneven with many holes dug by Natani -- it's an exciting minefield for potential twisted ankles. Another nice feature in our house is the "master bathroom" made solely of roughed-in plywood and unfinished drywall. If you don't mind the splinters of the plywood floor, you can get in there to brush your teeth at the one functioning sink. It's a space that really lets your imagination soar.
While they attempted to find the can opener in our mess of a kitchen supply drawer in Seattle, I was being driven around Mexico City by their driver, Julio. Julio is a very kind, smiley man who seemed to vacillate wildly between liking me very much and having absolutely no idea what to do about me. I don't speak Spanish and he doesn't speak English so we communicated with wild sign language, or more effectively, an English-to-Spanish app on my phone, or -- least effectively though my favorite - speaking loudly and slowly in our own languages while staring intensely at the other person.
Having a driver in Mexico City seems like a luxury until you realize they are crucial to your survival. Do not drive yourself in Mexico City. I repeat. Do not do that. There are 22 million people in the city and they all know what to do but you will not. You're in way over your head, stranger.
There are seemingly few rules on the road; everyone just worms their way into the mess and comes out the other side with minimal honking. I have no idea how they do it, looks like a confusing writhing mess to me yet is amazing in the fact everyone seems to be on the same page -- a "we're all in this shitshow together, let's work it out" kind of thing.
Red lights appear to be more of a suggestion than a hard and fast rule. Julio blew through one and when I asked why he looked surprised and said, "Why would I stop? There was nobody else there." If it's a three-lane street, don't be surprised to find cars four across. I even saw a few people plunge into the huge roundabout in the center of town headed clockwise. I pointed at them and asked via phone app, "Can they do that?" Julio laughed, shrugged, and replied, I think, "It is a little harder going that way but sure, they'll make it fine."
Yes indeed, Julio was a lifesaver. He drove Alex to work in the morning then returned to take the kids and I wherever we wanted to go. He'd drop us at the touristy places and return hours later to pick us up.
It's an easy idea in theory but proved harder in practice. On our way to the Zocalo area, Julio pointed at a place called Sanborns outside the Belles Artes and said, "aqui! aqui!" which I understood to mean a place called Sanborns near Belles Artes was the place for pick-up later that afternoon. I nodded enthusiastically and gave him a thumbs up. I'll be there, Julio!
The kids and I enjoyed our time in the Zocalo area. The Diego Rivera mural at the Palacio Nacional was unfortunately under scaffolding but I loved the Templo Mayor, the ancient Aztec temple at the center of the bustling city.
The Templo Mayor ruins in the shadow of the cathedral
That's a wall of sculpted skulls in the foreground
It was monsoon season in Mexico City so an umbrella was crucial for the violent storm that would pop up every afternoon, pass quickly, and leave everything soaked in its wake. For reasons I don't understand, no one is allowed to take their crucial umbrella into the ruins of Templo Mayor. Are they afraid of us beating the ruins with our umbrellas? Beating other people? Or maybe they just want us to experience life the way the Aztecs did -- if it rains, you're getting wet, pansies.
For whatever reason, my umbrella was confiscated at the entrance. They also confiscated Coco's fruit snacks from my purse, which troubled Coco greatly. I forgot both these items at the Templo Mayor entrance after our visit so had to double back later in the day to retrieve them. This caused my kids to grumble. I love that kid grumbling, can't get enough.
I pantomimed my umbrella back at the Templo Mayor entrance and got it back right away but the fruit snacks were not so simple. My gestures may have given the impression I wanted to shovel tiny rat turds into my mouth by the way the employees' eyes widened with concern. After five minutes of intense discussion amongst them, one had a eureka! moment, said something excitedly, and presented the fruit snacks from a small box under the desk. Then we all jumped up and down, excited and relieved for an understanding.
The ruins of the Templo Major pyramid were not excavated until 1978.
And now it's an Aztec temple hanging out in the middle of a giant modern city.
But my children still found this cactus more interesting.
We ate a late lunch in a nice place overlooking the cathedral. I ordered ten different things in the hopes of broadening my kids' understanding of Mexican food. They had a hard time believing Mexican food was more than cheese quesadillas and bean burritos.
I ordered mole and pescado veracruzano and chiles rellenos among others. The kids didn't like any of it, of course, as I should have known. I felt bad leaving so much food so I did my best. I ate more that day than I've possibly ever eaten in my life. I was like one of those people in eating contests that onlookers can only watch silently with gaping mouths. I had no time to talk, just time to stuff, maybe grunt a little. I did try but much as I love Mexican food, I could not eat it all.
(In related news, my jeans no longer fit when I came home to Seattle. Mexican food will do that to you. But I dare say it's worth every day thereafter you must spend in elastic-waisted pants.)
After lunch I waddled back towards the Belles Artes area with two very tired kids to catch the Julio shuttle bound for home. I found Sanborns and stood outside in the full sun. It was hot, we were tired, we were wilting. The time for pick up came and went, after which followed what I could tell were frantic text messages from Julio along the lines of "Where the hell are you?" I replied I was in front of Sanborns at Belles Artes, like he told me to be, and he said something like, "No, no, you're not."
Text communication was arduous with Julio because I had to copy each message and paste them into my Spanish app. Then I copied and pasted my response. It made for agonizingly slow progress with panic rising slightly, knowing something had gone wrong but not knowing exactly what it was. I eventually said, "Am I lost, Julio?" to which he replied, "Si."
We stood in the sun baking like enchiladas (mmm enchiladas) for over an hour as Julio likely had a heart attack somewhere else in town. I got Alex involved at work. He called Julio, called me, called Julio, called me, etc. I finally found a couple labeled streets near where I was and relayed them to Alex. Then my phone battery died.
Despair was imminent when I finally heard someone screaming my name. Julio was charging at me at a full run through cars. He hugged me with joy, hugged the kids, began apologizing profusely as he dragged us back to his car left in the middle of the street, which was fine because weird road behavior is normal in Mexico City.
As it turns out, Sanborns is a chain and I was standing in front of the wrong Sanborns. I had come across a Sanborns and stopped walking, not knowing there were other options. I wasn't supposed to be at the plain brown Sanborns near Belles Artes, I was supposed to be at the Sanborns with the pretty tile on the front on the other side of Belles Artes -- hadn't I noticed the pretty tile on the front of the building when we drove past that morning, asked Julio, still sweating and running his hands through his hair repeatedly.
That was the day we learned all Sanborns look the same to gringas.
The kids and I returned to the house with Sanborns sunburns. We came into the house to find Rosa, the sweetest, most wonderful cook, had made enchiladas in red sauce for dinner because I'd mentioned the day before they were my favorite. I could not even think about more food after my gluttonous lunch feast but I still did what I had to do. I ate a ton of them that evening. They were amazing.
I wish I could write short but I can't write short. Mexico is going to be another multi-episode saga. Brevity is not my strong suit; it is as hard for me as walking away from a plate of Mexican food, apparently.
But I will admit this now -- giving Julio some trouble wasn't a one time thing. It may or may not have happened a couple more times. He sure did earn his money that week.
In my defense, Mexico City is crazy.