Thursday, September 22, 2016

Mexico City Part Three: Julio learns to love

It's a trilogy.  Part One of Mexico City is here, Part Two here.

Did I get lost in Mexico City again?  Yes, I did.  Did I text our driver, Julio, with a panicked, "I'm not sure where you are or where I am, help me" message?  Yes, it's true.  Did Coco throw up in the car again?  Thank the Aztec Gods, no.

Coco throwing up in the car, horrifying as it was, was a real turning point in my relationship with Julio.  Once you've dealt with that together, the ice is most definitely broken.  Once you've made horrified faces at each other, flapped your arms like panicked birds together, and tripped over flustered words in your respective languages together, you're bonded for life.  

The next morning, when we once again braved the car, I brought plastic bags. I put my hand up, did not let Julio move the car an inch until the kids had bags held up to their mouths.  I yelled, "Bag!" Julio laughed so hard at that, I at first thought he was crying because we were in his car again.

Julio and I began yelling in unison, "Bag! Bag! Bag!" every day after that, especially when traffic got hairy and Julio got swervy.  I stockpiled plastic grocery bags, always had at least a dozen in my purse.

I promised Coco cotton candy one day if she didn't get sick in the car
I realize that doesn't make much sense
It also wasn't very helpful
because cotton candy just makes a different kind of mess

The kids and I visited the Anthropology Museum, a museum that boasts being the best anthropology museum in the world.  What we learned from our visit is humans are fascinating, and also pretty creepy and quite mean.

The kids enjoyed the dioramas of ancient people getting gored by animals

My favorite part of the museum was the Stone of the Sun.  It was huge, impressive, terrifying with its center ancient god and his tongue shaped like a dagger.  From what I understood, gladiators fought on the Stone of the Sun and the loser was then sacrificed upon it.

And the laughs keep coming at the Museum of Anthropology!

I hoped to find a replica of the Stone of the Sun in the gift shop.  I found one, all right, but it was a large-ish solid slab of stone and weighed about 20 pounds.  I debated for quite some time; we still had a couple sights to see that day before Julio picked us up and how was I going to get to them, let alone enjoy them, carrying a large rock?

I had put the heavy Stone of the Sun back down and resigned myself to the smaller six-inch version made of lightweight plaster when Lucien piped up: "Mom, YOLO. Get the one you want, get the big one, we can do it." I love that kid; he often provides clarity when I'm getting bogged down in stupid, worthless worry.  He was absolutely right.  I bought the big one.

Lucien volunteered to carry the stand, which was almost as heavy as the stone itself.  We dragged our bags down the street and through the park, stopping to rest every few minutes for a breather because sure, YOLO, but also, we can't feel our arms anymore.

The next stop was the castle high on the hill.  I was dreading the walk up to the castle with the Stone of the Sun in tow but -- merciful Mexico! -- there was a stand of storage lockers at the base of the hill.  The Stone of the Sun fit perfectly in the largest one.  We climbed up to the castle laughing and feeling light as feathers.

I enjoy these next two pictures because they're a real slice of life and a great illustration of how light-as-a-feather moods can turn on a dime.  My kids began fighting soon after we arrived at the castle for reasons that were never quite clear. Take a look at these two pictures (there are two because the kids refused to stand next to each other by that time) and take a guess -- who was bugging who just for giggles?  Who was pushing every button they could think of just to upset the other person? And who was being very, very effective in these efforts?

Don't feel too badly for her.  The expressions are just as often reversed with these two.

An hour outside Mexico City lies Teotihuacan, the ancient village and site of many pyramids. It was my favorite place we visited, too bad I'm cramming it in here at the end where it won't be given the time and energy it deserves because I'm getting sick of writing about this trip and would like to wrap it up.

Teotihuacan was definitely the kids' favorite. We climbed the biggest pyramid, the Pyramid of the Sun, early in the morning before the crowds arrived.  It was hard work on the legs, and a little tense (for the mom, anyway) given the steep and seemingly endless stairs.  I pretty much just yelled, "Be careful!" constantly.

Later in the day, after a lot of sun and heat, we may have gotten delirious at Teotihuacan.  This is us touring the ruins of a noble's house --

Coco is pretending to go to the bathroom on that rock because she thought it looked like a toilet. Lucien is doing God only knows what.

We also climbed to the top of the smaller pyramid, the Pyramid of the Moon, where Lucien once again began complaining about his old man aches and pains

Lucien declaring, "I'm going to sit on this old crap now, I'm sick of walking around."

just chillin' on a pyramid

The last noteworthy tourist attraction I'd like to mention is Frida Kahlo's house, La Casa Azul.  Frida grew up in the house and later lived there with her husband, artist Diego Rivera.

La Casa Azul is a very special place. It is both a museum showcasing Frida's art and her home, which introduces you to the more intimate parts of her life -- her physical ailments, her clothing, her complicated relationship with Diego, her various braces for what she called, "a body less than perfect."

Everything in Frida's studio is where she left it when she died, per Diego's orders.  Their personal artifacts are still scattered throughout the house. It feels like Frida and Diego are still living there, like they've just stepped out for a moment and we should make ourselves at home while waiting for their return.

Strolling around the charming neighborhood of Coyoacan

I just noticed there is another goddamn Sanborns behind them in this picture
Should I stand in front of it and text Julio in a panic for old time's sake?

After Frida's house, we loaded up on souvenirs at the stalls of the Coyoacan mercado.  I bought a couple handmade Dia de los Muertos figures from a very silent man.  It took him half an hour to wrap each one; they were so fragile, there was much concern they would not make it home in one piece.  

(Spoiler: they didn't.  They arrived home in many pieces.  I spent hours gluing their tiny slender fingers back on with a pair of tweezers and a q-tip full of super glue.  They next day the dude fell over and lost an entire arm in several places.  It could be a losing battle.)

keep your parts on, people

Julio drove us to the airport our final morning and hugged us all twice.  He even looked a little emotional as he ruffled the kids' hair a final time, winked at me and yelled, "Bag!"  I like to believe Julio came to love us but I didn't ask him outright.  

The Loosh was right.
I'm happy when I see it everyday. for this.  Our trip to Mexico City wasn't exactly a whim; Alex and I are in active talks with his employer about a temporary move to Mexico City, just for a little bit.  It wouldn't be a long bit, not like a Paris-three-year bit. It would be maybe six months, maybe a little more.

Our trip to Mexico City was a reconnaissance mission.  Could the kids and I live there happily while Alex hammers out what he must do for work?  I think we can.  The city is nutballs but we love Mexico.  How can you not love Mexico??  They put black sauce in their beers to make them spicy, you guys!

plus, delicious enchiladas verdes
(we miss you, Rosa)

There are many hurdles.  Houses, pets, schools, visas, etc. We are beginning the visa application process, beginning the Mexico City school application process.  We're going to give it a try.

Ex-pats 4-ever, or at least ex-pats once in awhile 4-ever,

Monday, September 19, 2016

Mexico City Part Two: Sorry again, Julio

Here comes Part Two.  Mexico City Part One is back here.

A large percentage of life in Mexico City involves sitting in traffic.  If you look at a map, it looks like a short distance from Point A to Point B but don't get optimistic about it -- you're still going to sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic for over an hour and ultimately wish you'd never heard of Point B.

There are tricks for avoiding the heaviest traffic, such as driving only between midnight and dawn.  Those are not the friendliest tourist hours, though, so instead Julio and I just said, "mucho trafico" back and forth to each other for long periods of time while staring at some guy's bumper. At least I learned a little Spanish.

A couple days after our arrival in Mexico, we went to Puebla, a city that should take two hours of driving from Mexico City but took us three-and-a-half.  Mucho trafico.

We were in Puebla as guests of one of Alex's co-workers, who grew up there.  The co-worker, whom I'll call Luis, and his wife introduced me to the cubano in Puebla.  A cubano is a beer poured into a glass containing some thick-ish black sauce at the bottom.  I was suspicious, too, until I tried it, but now agree with Mexico that beer should be spicy.

I mentioned the beer first.  That probably says a lot about me.  There are many other fascinating things in the Puebla area besides spicy beer, though perhaps they're not as life-changing --

There are gorgeous churches

and a street devoted entirely to candy
she clutches pesos in her hand
she is ready

and "mystery tunnels" that lie underneath the city

and the very first public library in the Americas
with books over 500 years old

and our hotel, which was a former convent and had a strange window/door thing
Coco claimed it as her own private entrance
and used it often to dance outside the room

Luis drove us to the nearby town of Cholula.  Cholula's defining feature is a huge hidden pyramid. After the conquering Spanish took control of the area, they covered all the pyramids with dirt and built Spanish churches on top of them. That's really rubbing it in, kind of a dick move there, Spanish.

The pyramid at Cholula, the largest pyramid in the world,
 is partially uncovered
but still mostly covered 
by grass, trees, and a dick move church

I was intrigued by the site but, thankfully, did not understand how one accesses the area until we were already in the thick of it.  If I had known, I would not have gone.

The entrance to the Cholula pyramid takes you straight through the pyramid itself -- as in really straight through the pyramid, far underground, through a narrow tunnel with such a low clearance, Alex had to duck for the duration.

I would have been OK, somewhat, if there had been some breathing room but there are lots of people in front of you, lots of people behind you, all moving very slowly.  I'm a claustrophobe, as I've mentioned before, and being in that tunnel with no visible exit in either direction and no possibility of moving faster and surrounded by lots of people may or may not have pushed me to the brink of socially acceptable behavior.

I couldn't speak.  We had a tour guide with us in the tunnel who spoke Spanish.  After every sentence, Alex or Luis would translate for me but I couldn't respond.  I heard very little besides my internal voice screaming, "We're all gonna die!  This is our tomb!"

Welcome to my hell

It took a full twenty minutes to clear the tunnels.  Those were twenty long minutes.  The only thing that kept my rising panic at bay was my faithful iPhone.  I began scrolling through pictures I'd taken so far in Mexico.  As long as I was staring at something else, and not looking around assessing the reality of my situation, I could avoid hyperventilation, clawing a path through strangers, passing out, screaming, whatever.

Alex didn't understand what was going on with me and said at one point, "I cannot believe you're on your phone right now" to which I replied through clenched teeth, "Trust me, you want me on my goddamn phone right now or else I'm going to embarrass us all very, very badly."  He got the hint, even pointed out a few of his favorite pics on my sanity-saving tiny phone screen.

Once we were through the tunnels, I once again loved the idea of visiting the pyramid at Cholula because the place is really, really cool.

I like you, hidden pyramid
but I never again want to walk through you

It was Cholula where we discovered Lucien is a crabby old man trapped in a young boy's body. There was a lot of walking involved up and down the pyramid and at first it was a few quiet, "Gosh, I'm tired"s but soon escalated into full blown "Ow, my hip, my hip!" as he clutched various body parts and hobbled around.

Here he is bemoaning the fact his "lower back ain't what it used to be."

Lucien's injuries disappeared miraculously after we'd finished the tour and purchased his favorite chili lime peanuts.  Lessons learned at Cholula -- iPhones and peanuts can cure serious problems.

We were welcomed warmly back to Mexico City by Julio and Rosa.  As perfect and helpful as they were during our stay, I found it awkward to have people in my employ hanging around the house.  When Julio was not driving us or attending to car-related issues, he hung out in a little room off the kitchen where he read the paper or watched TV. I felt guilty every time he was in the little room because I worried I wasn't using his time and talents effectively.  If it seemed he'd been sitting in the little room a long time, I began flipping through my Mexico City travel books thinking, "I should find someplace to go right now so Julio isn't bored."

One day, out of Julio guilt, we went to Chapultepec Park, a huge park in the center of town that houses museums and a castle, all of which were closed the day I chose to go.  The kids and I instead played Pokemon Go in the park (trust it, we weren't the only ones) and rented a paddle boat to take for a spin in the pond.

Paddle boats kind of suck.  It's a lot of work for not a lot of excitement.  Lucien and I could no longer feel our legs afterwards because you work damn hard on paddle boats, especially when there's a third passenger whose short legs and tiny feet can't reach the pedals so is no help at all.

Free ride

The next day I asked Julio to drive us to Luis's wife's apartment.  We were going to meet up with her and her kids to take a tour of the canals in the Xochimilco area.  Traffic was particularly bad that day so there was a lot of darting on Julio's part.  He got us to her apartment complex in time but was punished for his effective driving when Coco threw up in the back of the car.  The motion sickness runs strong in that one.

As Julio and I bailed from the car and flailed in a parking lot looking for plastic bags and paper towels, she threw up again.  We never made it to Xochimilco.  We instead went home with all the windows rolled down.  Julio drove so slowly, trying so hard not to upset her sensitive equilibrium yet again, that people actually honked at us.  You know you're doing something way wrong if they're honking at you.

Back at home, the kids and I hugged each other and played video games on the Xbox while Julio cleaned up the car. I begged him to let me do it, emphatically and profusely, but he waved me away and said no, no, it's no problem, it's ok.

At least he wasn't bored.

I told you Julio really earned his money that week, and I did not lie.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Am I lost, Julio?

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, " 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
Badass Aztecs

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.