Aloha Mexico City

The early morning air washes cool against my cheeks as I step out for a run. All was quiet in my Sacramento neighborhood except for the steady drone of commuters coursing through the bordering I-5 freeway. My sister’s Hawaiian Airlines flight was en route home to Honolulu. It is July 5th, the morning following an evening of fireworks, parades, barbecues and family picnics; yesterday’s federal holiday commemorating America’s independence from the British Empire more than two hundred and forty years ago.

I run past an empty booth that sold fireworks in the days before the July 4th holiday. As a kid, I felt the distress of impatience, the day dragging slowly before twilight permitted the light of sparklers to burn bright against the night’s canopy, tracing convoluted circles for brief moments before fading back to dark. The significance of the holiday mattered little compared to witnessing the festoon of fireworks that delighted our eyes and rocked our eardrums with its loud, percussive explosions.

Only a week ago my sister and I were wending our way along the narrow streets of Mexico City’s historic central district not far from our hotel which was located on the corner of 20 de Noviembre. The ghost behind that historical day lived in 1910, when the Mexicans began a revolutionary war to oust dictator Porfirio Diaz. We knew we needed to change our course when familiar landmarks failed to materialize along 5 de Febrero, a street named for the day the Mexican Constitution was signed in 1917. Atop a red double-decked Turibus, we notice streets named after historical figures such as Francisco Madero and Pino Suarez, men who served respectively as Mexico’s President and Vice-President. Both were revolutionaries. They were assassinated in 1913. We passed streets named after events–Av Independencia, Paseo de la Reforma, Av Insurgentes, and streets named after its Latin neighbors–Republica de Guatemala, Republica de Venezuela and Republica de Uruguay.

The day we toured Puebla and Cholula, a swarthy Ricardo served as our bilingual guide and driver. My sister and I and an East Indian couple from Long Beach were the only English speakers, the others were non-Mexicans from Spanish-speaking countries. Ricardo operated without a filter, his thoughts flowing fluidly to his tongue, alternatively cursing at the heavy city traffic and gabbing with his charges. Loudly he said in English, “Puerto Rico, Peru, Spain, America…I am Mexican and I shower every day!” Jerking out his chin he expounded, “Your President Trump say we are ‘stinking’ Mexicans. He is crazy! Crazy people! This is how wars start!” To which my sister responded flatly, “Yes. They should fire him.” I flash her an apprehensive glance, complicit in the knowledge of the presidential candidate she supported in the last election. “Not fire him…keel him!” Ricardo spat. His rant turned explanatory with the decision American automaker Ford made recently to divert the manufacture of its Focus line from Mexico due to pressure from Trump. GMC, on the other hand, won his praises for their commitment to manufacture their (compact sport utility) vehicles in Mexico.

The city of Puebla, located south of Mexico City, is known as a culinary capital. In the famous Talavera shop, we were encouraged to sample a sticky smear of a soft brownish-red paste, a sweet treat made with camote, sweet potato. Puebla’s signature dish, however, is the mole poblano. The dark sauce, also available in the same shop, hung from shelves in clear plastic bags. Talavera, founded in 1824, is known for its beautifully hand-painted pottery that include tiles, dishes and tea sets. Except for the deep blue of the Mexican pottery, it is almost indistinguishable from the blue-and-white of Ming dynasty porcelain.

Ricardo asked if we knew the historical significance of 5 May, Cinco de Mayo. Cinco de Mayo where I live means getting your avocados early, before grocers sell out; it’s a day spent celebrating Mexican food, music and culture. Ricardo’s explanation was much more sobering; it was the day in 1862 when Mexican troops defeated the French in the Battle of Puebla. Exuberant festivities seem to have forgotten this small detail of a historical victory.

Rain began falling when we arrived at the Great Pyramid of Cholula to explore the underground tunnels created by archeologists in the 1930s. Reportedly the world’s largest pyramid, it was built using layers upon layers of baked mud and painstakingly embellished with insects by the ancient Aztecs. When the Spaniards arrived in 1519, they destroyed all Aztec religious structures but for the old pyramid, seeing it as it appears today, a natural mountain. They even built a church upon it. Exiting the tunnels, the rain assaults the umbrella I share with an older woman from Spain.

Pablo is a large, balding Latino gentleman with a commanding presence and uproarious laugh and who wore the same brown tweed coat on the two days he served as our guide. On our second tour with him, we visited Mexico City’s southern neighborhoods of Xochilmilco and Coyoacan. Xochilmilco is a world heritage site, best known for what’s left of the city’s canals. Mexican families come here on the weekends to feast and be entertained. Tightly docked on the water are colorful rafts we use as bridges until we seven tourists, Pablo and Arturo (the driver), settle into one, taking seats facing a long, narrow central table. A woman sits near Pablo, long beaded necklaces draped heavily over one arm.

Pablo has engaged food services for those of us interested in having lunch on the raft. The family from Puerto Rico place their orders (a mere hour since having snacked heavily on the ride over). A small man takes their orders and treads back to the raft attached to ours where his wife prepares something in a steaming pot. Flexing nut-brown calves, our lone rower moves his legs with halting steps, deftly steering our raft forward as he pushes off with a very long hollow bamboo pole at a pace that matches that of another raft that floats a mariachi band. Two men invite themselves aboard, one holding a guitar, the other, a trumpet. The remaining band members stay put. Surround sound. Song requests are made from the Puerto Ricans and Ecuadorian. The Puerto Ricans tip in USD. The Ecuadorian with Mexican pesos. Pablo asks the band to play “Ha-wa-ee” music but the looks that are exchanged inform us they know of none. Pablo shrewdly announces, “Okay. They will play something Ha-wa-ee-like.” The trumpets blare something very Mexican-mariachi-like. Nevertheless, we are obligated to tip them. The woman with the necklaces makes her move after the dishes are cleared and the table stripped of its cloth, handing out necklaces to hands reaching out reflexively to receive them. She attempts to impress us with their quality. “Obsidian,” she says as she fingers a smooth black pendant, “good price.” My sister tries politely to pry her off. The woman stands firm and implores in English, “My family….” Sometime later, necklace lady disembarks and Pablo invites aboard a dark man with a toothy smile carrying a large, flat case. “He is going to show you something very special.” It was full of jewelry. We were very much the captive audience.

On our first tour with him to the Teotihuacan Pyramids, Pablo asked that he not be tipped. “Just your smile is enough.” As if on cue, Arturo the driver, put out his tip basket. Some chose to tip Pablo anyway. I watched his meaty hand subtly slip the colorful notes into Arturo’s basket. Later, we learn that the average Mexican earns 100 pesos a day. “That’s in one day, not one hour,” it was stressed. At today’s exchange rate, that’s the equivalent of $5.50 in USD. We over tip the driver and give Pablo our cheesiest smiles.

It was raining hard on our drive-by “tour” of Coyoacan. The rain typically fell in the late afternoon, sometime between 3:30 p.m. and 4 p.m. It was already nightfall. I quickly snapped a picture of Frida Khalo’s blue house/museum through the moving van’s window, studded with raindrops. During museum hours, a line snakes out of its small door. This night, it stood hauntingly empty.

It was late and still raining when we return to our hotel. Options for finding a restaurant outside of the hotel was out. We went straight to our one option; to a restaurant that connected to our hotel. Our server is a dapper middle-aged gentleman with thinning hair and glasses. He spoke flawless English. Peering over his glasses, he asks us where we are from. Predictably, my sister responds with, “Hawaii.”

“Hawaii?” He repeats, a smile crossing his lips. “Aloha,” he said, straightening his arms out to one side and jutting out a bony hip, mimicking a kaholo. “My daughter learned to dance hula in school,” he said. We laughed and chatted a bit before giving him our order. Unfortunately, he thought we were leaving him a very generous tip when what we really wanted was to break a large bill. We left him a generous enough twenty per cent.

Hector was our third and final tour guide. A small man with an easygoing charm, we succumbed to his smooth, baritone voice. He told me that he was 65 years old, had thirteen children, eleven of whom were girls and the majority of them married. When I commented on how bad I felt for his wife, he clarified that the children were the sum of five marriages and that he’d been widowed three times. His current wife is a woman twenty years his junior.

Paralleling the metro on our way out of the city, we observe the train to be tightly packed with human cargo. “The maker of our city’s metro is the same one who designed the trains in France, Canada and Santiago, Chile,” he said. The young Guatemalan couple next to him coo to each other, the young man smooches her cheek loudly. “It’s quiet because of the rubber tires,” he explained, then added, “it’s a bargain at five pesos. Free sauna. Free massage…especially for the women.”

Hector demystified the strange vertigo my sister experienced each time she entered a cathedral. “Mexico City is built over (drained) lakes,” he explained, “Over 5,000 buildings are sinking.” Before the arrival of the Spaniards, the Aztecs controlled the flow of water through a series of dikes, levees and canals. The spongy clay upon which the city sits is drying up, causing the city to sink. Undrained, “Mexico City would look like Venice,” he said.

We were on our way to see the silver mining town of Taxco in the state of Guerrero, located fifty-five miles southwest of Mexico City. He warned that the higher elevation would cause our ears to pop. Mexico City sits at an altitude of about 7400 feet above sea level. He said we’d climb an additional 1100 feet. Modest white-stucco homes with red-tile roofs snuggled tightly in the mountains overlooking this quaint city of single-lane, cobblestone streets beaded with old VW taxis repainted in pink and white, trailing the foothills into the town’s small square.

A Spanish-speaking single gentleman in our group obliges us by taking our photo. He also spoke English.

“Where are you from?” We ask.

“Monterey, Mexico.”

“Really?! You’re from Mexico?”

“Why does that surprise you?” He laughs.

He told us that he lived near the Texas border and crossed it once a month to work. He was our first Mexican tourist.

“Why here? Why tour Mexico?”

Smiling, he replies, “I love my country. I have visited many of its cities and I want to see all of them. It is beautiful!”

We nod in agreement. Our time here had run out; our flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to depart the next morning. Cosmetics are cheap and our hotel restaurant had killer strawberry margaritas. We will be back.

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